Among Twin Cities residents who saw at least one play last year, what percentage of them saw anything not playing at the Guthrie, the Ordway, or the Orpheum? Half, maybe? Whatever the figure is, it’s too small. Some of the very best theater to be found in the Twin Cities takes place off the beaten path, where theater is a labor of love (by definition it has to be, because the money is on the beaten path), stripped to its essence. Actors, audience, setting, script. Bam.
On Wednesday night, I attended the first production by the newly-founded Gonzo Group: Waiting for Godot. The production is staged at the Lowry Lab Theater, which despite being just a vigorous stone’s throw from Rice Park feels oddly forlorn inside, like a venue that’s not supposed to be there. The stage is lodged asymetrically to the corner of a big room with dingy red carpet, separated from the seats by a wide aisle, and the HVAC rumbles audibly off in the darkness. As Vladimir (Nick James) and Estragon (Luke Weber) stand waiting for Godot, you half expect a custodian to wander in and turn out the lights on them. The set is about as minimal as it could possibly be, so it’s entirely up to the cast to pull the show off.
|waiting for godot, presented at the lowry lab theater through october 30. for tickets ($15-$18) and information, see gonzotheatre.org. a streetcar named desire, presented at pioneer place through november 7. for tickets ($19) and information, see ppfive.com.|
They do so—with flair. James and Weber are precise and energetic, and Michael Ooms and Paul McGuire burst onto the stage with appropriately gonzo conviction as Pozzo and Lucky, respectively. I’m not sure that the show will convert anyone who’s uncertain about their interest in existentialist masterworks of the 20th century, but the play is of course a masterwork, and under Weber’s direction you understand why. The production is very well-cast (including an eerily composed Jordan Alexander as the Boy), and the actors’ faces are so expressive they fill the dusty tomb of a venue.
If you’re familiar with Godot only as a pop culture reference, you may not realize how funny it is, and some of the audience members on Wednesday night giggled their way through the show like 12-year-olds who snuck into a midnight screening of The Room. This is a no-frills production that not only doesn’t need the frills, it’s all the stronger for their absence.
The following night, I drove up north to see the new production of A Streetcar Named Desire being staged by Pioneer Place Theatre Company. Pioneer Place has occupied its renovated space in downtown St. Cloud for over a decade, originally serving only as a host venue for touring companies and now producing its own shows.
The last professional Streetcar available to local audiences was the Guthrie’s production, which ran this summer on the big Wurtele Thrust Stage. In my review of that production I made an embarrassing mistake by blaming director John Miller-Stephany for inserting sound effects that in fact are dictated by Tennessee Williams’s script, but seeing the Pioneer Place production vindicated my sense that the overall slickness of the Guthrie production got in the way of the material. The Streetcar characters aren’t quite ready to hang themselves, like Vladimir and Estragon are, but they’re living in rough circumstances both physically and emotionally. Todd Rosenthal’s Guthrie set, gorgeous in its scope and detail, worked better as a venue for Mos Def’s hip-hop show than as a supposedly humble home for Stella and Stanley. The Pioneer Place set, by Zach Curtis, is simple and functional and kind of dingy—as it should be.
The Pioneer Place production’s big draw for Twin Cities audiences is the presence of acclaimed Minneapolis actress Mo Perry as Stella, and unsurprisingly she excels with a portrayal of the character as weary and defeated. Perry’s Stella acknowledges reality in a way that her sister Blanche (Emma Gochberg) doesn’t, but you get the sense that she wouldn’t too much mind slipping off into Blanche’s fantasy world—if she could allow herself that luxury. Gochberg’s Stella isn’t especially dynamic—there’s “up” Stella and “down” Stella, and not much in between—but she’s steady and movingly human, avoiding any temptation to make the character a lunatic showcase.
Crucially, director Curtis was brave in the casting of his male leads, giving this production a dynamic that reveals emotional depths left muddy in the Guthrie staging. As Stanley, Eric Webster is brusque and brutish. While Webster does reveal the “drive” his wife mentions as one of his most attractive features, Webster’s is the drive of a simple man with simple desires. By contrast, Ricardo Antonio Chavira at the Guthrie was irresistibly charming, a man with the kind of “drive” referred to in college recommendation letters. (The Pioneer Place audience did a lot less laughing through the first act than the Guthrie audience did—unlike Chavira’s, Webster’s Stanley is not what Joe Pesci would call “funny ha-ha.”) Chavira’s Stanley was so obviously more appealing than Brian Keane’s meek Mitch that you couldn’t blame Blanche for flirting with him. Who wouldn’t? Curtis gives Mitch a hand by casting Ryan Parker Knox and allowing Knox to make Mitch genuinely appealing. In this production, Mitch is obviously the right choice for Blanche, and we see that Blanche’s attraction to Stanley is of a piece with her despair and self-hate.
Neither Gonzo’s Godot nor Pioneer Place’s Streetcar is a fancy production, but both are the stronger for it. Both productions have talent and taste, and there’s nothing to get in the way of the strong actors and the justifiably classic scripts they’re presenting. Oh, and those Streetcar sound effects I found so objectionable in the Guthrie production? They’re much more understated in the Pioneer Place production, and some of them are even omitted. Tennessee Williams might have been appalled, but I was pleased as punch.