You can’t help rooting for a group like Eat Street Players. I’ll be honest, even though they exist just three blocks from where I live, they never crossed my radar until late last year when I ran across a notice for a production of The Laramie Project. Any theater that produces that play catches my attention. A person could be forgiven for having a knee-jerk reaction to the description “community theater run out of a church.” But for every Fiddler On the Roof they produce, there’s also a Laramie Project. For every Godspell, there’s a production of Everyman or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Heck, they started their life with Into the Woods, which is in no way a happy-go-lucky fairy tale—and it’s Sondheim, another reason why it’s one of my favorite musicals. They do play readings of The Skin of Our Teeth for fun. This isn’t your average community theater group.
Plus, they seem devoted to the idea of new plays and new musicals as well, which earns them big points in my book. Their current workshop production of The Red Tureen is an example of that devotion. I’m tempted to grade on a curve here, but Eat Street Players have already done that for me. They’re clearly labeling this production as a work in progress. The production itself is up to what I’m assuming are their normal standards of quality. Design, direction, music and performance are all there. It’s the script that still needs work.
Michael Sheeks, in his director’s note, mentions that the company had to continually remind themselves that the purpose here was development, not production. Which is admirable, and a hard thing to do. As a theater artist, your instinct tells you to lock things down as quickly as you can, so you have a chance to polish them and make them look at good as possible. And, frankly, so you can make yourself look as good as possible. It takes an act of will to set your own ego aside for the good of the script and give it as much of a chance to grow as possible. It also takes an audience willing to go along for the ride. It was heartening to see a big crowd turn out for Eat Street’s opening, and that the crowd was ready to embrace what was being offered.
The Red Tureen is currently about twelve different musicals crammed into the space of less than two-and-a-half hours. Any one of the many plotlines and subplots could have served as the foundation for a full evening of theater all by itself. The tireless cast of 16 actors playing 21 characters were all, in one form or another, being underutilized. Though all of them sang with gusto, a handful of them were hardly allowed a chance to speak. Even the lead characters didn’t get a lot of elbow room to make a mark. There’s just way too much going on here. I can understand the temptation that librettist James Lundy and composer/lyricist Kevin Bowen faced. There’s an embarrassment of riches from which to choose in terms of meaty set-ups for character growth and conflict. Right now, unfortunately, the various plot threads are fighting with each other for breathing space.
The Red Tureen is the story of two sons of a local terrorist, or maybe he’s a local hero. Depends on who you ask. The man stabbed a soldier and blew up a military installation. Then he died in prison for his troubles. The sons reunite to bury their father. Each of them has renounced violence as a way of life. One, Padraig (Bill Marshall), has become a priest. The other, William (Chis Deutsch), has become a farmer.
This is Ireland, during the potato famine, under British military occupation. The parallels to modern day war, occupations, and natural disasters are legion. But the play needs more focus to take full advantage of them.
Then halfway through, The Red Tureen suddenly becomes a mystery we didn’t realize existed, because wait, the father was wrongly accused, and took the fall for someone else—a character still on the canvas of the story who the audience has met. The first story, frankly, was more interesting. And made more sense. It also had more honest, human, conflicted drama in it. The red tureen as a metaphor for any number of things the play puts on it, I can get behind. The red tureen as a Maguffin in a mystery plot wasn’t working for me.
But The Red Tureen is also about the love between a farmer who wants to stay and work the unforgiving land in the only home he’s ever known (William again), and the woman he loves, Maeb (Amy Westberg), who feels like the only way to have a decent life is to leave for a new home in America. This is our central love story, and it’s a good one, but it’s also rushed, like most everything else in The Red Tureen. The only time William and Maeb get to slow down for a minute is when they’re allowed to sing.
The songs William and Maeb get prove that Lundy and Bowen know their musical theater. The first two love songs riff on the possibility of “someday” while their final song anchors them in the life they have “now” (the start of any future). But when they’re not singing, they’re flying through their plotline at breakneck speed. So fast that it’s hard to get all the details right. For instance, on both sides of the couple, there are inklings of child abuse in their past, the extent and source of which remains so murky that one wonders why the authors bring it up. Again, a past with any kind of abuse—physical, emotional, or sexual—can put an enormous hurdle between two people trying to build a life together. It, too, could have been its own plot for them.
Not to mention that Maeb’s father Robert (Rich Soule) is a big spoiler in the William/Maeb love affair—again, for so many reasons that the plot starts to trip over itself. Robert is tied up in the mystery of William’s father. Robert is a drunk. Robert may be abusing Maeb, both in the past and presently. Robert is constantly stirring up the men of the town into violent action against their English overlords. Holy crap, pick one (or even two) subplots, please. Not half a dozen.
Other plots seem like they should be important and go nowhere. Major Trevor Hawkins (Steven Pundt) from England gets several songs and numerous scenes with a variety of characters major and minor (you’ll pardon the pun). Hawkins is trying to get rid of the inhabitants of the local village, either by scaring them off, or starving them out literally or financially. He even enlists the help of a local Irish landlord, Starkey (Clark Donnelly), to encourage his good countrymen and women to give up and hop a ship to America. Hawkins and Starkey both seem to be villains straight out of a Dickens novel. But unlike in Dickens, they neither squash their prey, nor get a well deserved comeuppance. They just wander around the edges of the other plots and eventually fade away. Again, the parallels to the present time are countless, but are left unexploited. Maybe it’s a different play entirely?
And please, if you’re going to point a loaded gun at a priest and a pregnant woman, then shut out the lights and have a gunshot ring out—there need to be consequences. The baby, the woman, or the priest need to be dead. Pick one. Otherwise it’s (you’ll pardon the expression) a cheap shot.
Even songs which are great fun aren’t moored to any of the rest of the story. The ladies’ big number “The Virgin Forest” has the women advising the youngest among them to watch her step with men. But the young woman’s flirtatious looks exchanged with (gasp!) an English soldier go exactly nowhere. Which is a shame, because “Irish girl/English soldier” is, once again, its own musical right there. As it is, the song exists in a vacuum. It comes from nothing that’s gone before that’s of any importance to the larger story, and has no impact on anything that comes after it.
But you gotta love The Red Tureen for being a big, unapologetic historical epic. The thing’s got ambition. The cast oftentimes sings the hell out of it, as if it were full of old standard musical theater tunes they’d heard many times before. The commitment here is infectious. Wherever The Red Tureen and all its characters are going, you want them to get there. And you want it to be big. It has that potential. Everyone here knows what they’re doing. Even seemingly little things, like the band sequestered onstage in a little wing of a church building with stained glass windows, are clever, well-thought out and executed choices.
The Red Tureen is worth seeing for what it is, and what it could be. Come check out a musical that’s still trying to decide what it wants to be when it grows up.
And I’m now very much looking forward to whatever Eat Street Players have planned for the Minnesota Fringe Festival this summer, intriguingly titled Nineteen Cows Leaving Beirut.