In this sticky heat, you may be tempted to escape to the cool darkness of a movie theater for a couple of hours this weekend. That’s a fine idea, but here’s a better one: pop into the Cedar-Riverside People’s Center for one of the final performances of Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s The Transdimensional Couriers Union, a thrilling sci-fi tale that’s smarter and more engaging, on more levels, than just about anything you’re likely to find at a multiplex.
Couriers Union is a world premiere play by Walking Shadow company member John Heimbuch, and it’s tremendously ambitious—particularly given the fact that Heimbuch knew it would be produced on the budget and scale of a mid-size theater company. (In other words, on a shoestring.) The play, which is described in more detail in Becca Mitchell’s Daily Planet review, is a time-travel adventure that starts in the middle and unspools in several directions as characters jump among dimensions in pursuit of love, honor, and money. (We’re informed off-handedly that somewhere along the line, a currency was developed that holds its value even when carried across national boundaries and fiscal cycles—kind of a hyper-Euro.)
Though it’s not perfect, Couriers Union is remarkably successful on many levels. Heimbuch’s script is a great intellectual feat, tossing several balls immediately into the air and keeping them there for the play’s duration, dispensing tidbits of information at a heady, entrancing pace that may have you on the edge of your seat. For the most part Heimbuch’s characters are cut from standard stock—the confused but noble hero, the devoted girlfriend, the venal lothario, the grey-bearded scientist who stands agog at the unintended consequences of his brilliant invention—but who cares? The playwright also manages to hold the psudo-science babble to a bare minimum, and restrains what I’m guessing was a serious temptation to get into a more deliberate consideration of philosophical ideas (David Hume is name-dropped multiple times).
On top of all this, Heimbuch attempts an examination of relationships and responsibility in a universe where multiple chains of events exist simultaneously, and does so successfully enough that you’ll be thinking and talking about it afterwards—but ultimately, Heimbuch’s brain trumps his heart. For me, the play’s emotional stakes dropped precipitously after a couple of confrontations midway through the second act, and by the play’s conclusion I was too busy trying to keep the time-threads straight to care much about who ended up with whom. The relationships here serve the story (as in Asimov), rather than vice versa (as in Bradbury).
Now consider the immense logistical challenges faced by Heimbuch, who also directs, in bringing his fantasy epic to the small People’s Center stage, with no CNN-style holograms to be had. A couple of smart decisions put the production on good footing: Surtitles helpfully keep the audience apprised of the time and place in which each scene takes place—intermission included (“present day”)—and a few simple set elements are regularly repositioned by stage manager Sarah Holmberg’s crack crew, who operate so silently and efficiently that you hardly even see them. Michael Croswell’s sound design is stellar, giving the production a rich sense of depth and punctuating the many, often rapid, transitions. E. Amy Hill’s costume design is rather conventional for a contemporary sci-fi show (think mirrored shades and black trenchcoats), but that’s fine. After the Ragstock replicants who populated The Mars Project and Robots vs. Fake Robots, there’s something comforting about being back in a future where the outfits are cut from the Iron Curtain rather than the Velvet Lapelles.
Finally, there are the performances—which are exceptional. Jean Wolff (as cold superexecutive Eleanor Morgan) and Alan Sorenson (idealistic scientist Savien Mercure) find the right notes for their battling characters, then show a tender romantic spark in a second-act scene depicting the beginning of their ill-fated romance. A boyish Sid Solomon is well-cast in the central role of writer-turned-hero Peter Logan, and Melissa Anne Murphy plays his girlfriend Sophie as a woman who can be sweet and tender until you wrong her—at which point you’d best put some very distant spatiotemporal coordinates into your interdimensional wristguard. As the villainous Quentin Sparr, Randy Schmeling is so oily you’ll want to bring some Oxy pads to use during intermission.
Best of all is Anna Sundberg, whose character—the well-intentioned but practical-minded Renee Goddard—is the play’s most complex and elusive. Sundberg brings a focused intensity to every scene, even when the scenes happen almost on top of each other and her emotions and motivation need to change dramatically in about three seconds’ time. She gets a Big Speech in the second act, and she gives it a virtuoso reading, cutting straight to the Big Themes at the play’s heart exactly as an actor given a Big Speech is supposed to—with passion and nuance, and without yielding to Oscar-clip histrionics.
The Transdimensional Couriers Union is a bar-raising production for mid-sized companies in the Twin Cities. Heimbuch and his team have set themselves an enormously daunting task, and pulled it off with flair. This is definitely the show to beat for popcorn play of the summer.
Photo courtesy Walking Shadow Theatre Company