THEATER | Guthrie’s “Tiny Kushner” packs a big punch

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Size matters not—whether you’re a Jedi master or a theatrical presentation. Such is demonstrated by Tiny Kushner, the collection of short plays by Tony Kushner now playing at the Guthrie’s smallest venue, the Dowling Studio. These short plays in a close setting make for an entertaining evening, and occasionally have an outsize impact.

The five plays are performed in rapid succession (with one intermission) by a sterling cast of four: Jim Lichtscheidl, Valeri Mudek, Kate Eifrig, and J.C. Cutler. The five works all touch on themes of guilt and responsibility, morality plays referencing (and in some cases starring) prominent public figures. Three of the five are set in the afterlife, and two feature psychoanalysis.

tiny kushner, presented through june 13 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($18-$34) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

Freudian psychology both draws on and has influenced so many dramatic tropes that featuring therapy in a play is to risk falling down a steep and slippery well of dead archetypes. Writers’ best bet may be to play it for laughs, as Woody Allen has done so successfully (Annie Hall, Deconstructing Harry) and Kushner manages to some degree here. Still, Terminating or Sonnet LXXV or “Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein” or Ambivalence and Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker in Paradise—how much of Kushner’s fame is due to his winning favor among critics with word counts to meet under tight deadlines?—bog down in tedious discussions of transference and counter-transference.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the sprightly East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis: a little teleplay in tiny monologues, a solo piece in which Lichtscheidl morphs through a series of characters as they attempt to convince the government that for legal purposes they essentially don’t exist—and thus ought to be exempt from taxation. There is probably no actor in the Twin Cities better equipped than the chameleonic Lichtscheidl to make this humorous piece succeed; on opening night, the crowd ate it up.

Tiny Kushner is bookended by two plays starring recently-deceased characters. The opener Flip Flop Fly! pairs Mudek and Eifrig as a pair of women—Mudek a beauty queen, Eifrig a deposed Baltic aristocrat—who have been deposited after their respective demises together on the Moon, where Mudek’s delusional memories of an eventful life are set in ironic counterpoint to Eifrig’s memories of real historical tragedies resulting from the world’s grandest delusions. Both actresses play their roles in broad caricature (what is it about the appearance of an accordion at the Guthrie that invites overacting?), but the piece closes with the best straight-faced dance scene since Water Drops on Burning Rocks.

In the concluding piece, Eifrig plays the role of Laura Bush, summoned to paradise to read a book—she chooses The Brothers Karamazov—to a trio of Iraqi children who have died horrible deaths resulting from American aggression. It’s the most substantive piece of the lot, and along with East Coast Ode one of the two most successful; what begins as a farcical conceit develops into a thoughtful, if overearnest, meditation on the trials of a thoughtful, kind person caught in the sweep of what is at best a deeply ambiguous moral situation with thousands of innocent lives at stake.

Caroline, or Change will be produced again, many times. So, if early reports are any indication, will Kushner’s new play The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, which is having its world premiere at the Guthrie this week. This, however, will likely be your last chance to see these short works performed by such a stellar cast. If you’re a Kushner fan, you should not miss it.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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