Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play is an update of the ancient Finnish saga The Kalevala, in which heroic figures, many with supernatural power, tell the story of the Finns from the beginning of time to the introduction of Christianity. Originally it was passed on as orally, with 22,795 verses, divided into fifty songs, or runes. A written compilation was published in 1835 and followed by a longer version in 1847 which is still in use. The Kalevala is credited with launching the Finnish people's national identity, promoting usage of the Finnish language and inspiring Finland's fight for independence from Russia in 1917.
Those are impressive credentials for a literary work. Needless to say, the Nimbus Kalevala, written by Artistic Director Liz Neerland, doesn't cover the entire saga. It draws from its many characters and episodes form a composite view of the nature of these heroes, their relationships and their struggles with forces of evil. Neerland and director Josh Cragun have updated the tale, in a manner, with the premise that people in the old land were abandoning belief in the stories, so the heroes set off to a new setting, landing in a place and time that might be taken as our own. That would be the idea behind having a motorcycle (actual) and automobile (an abstraction formed by several cast members) on stage. The characters use current styles of speaking, which the playwright has determined must include the frequent use of four letter words. Their wardrobe includes blue jeans and work boots, but also retains pelts, tunics and other garb of the ancient heroes.
The play has three heroes, who stand out as especially central to the original saga. Väinämöinen was the first man. His father was the sea and his mother was daughter of the sky. He is the eternal singer and creator of all stories. Ilmarinen is the heroic smith who forges all manner of metal work, including the sampo, a mythological artifact that ensures its possessor of endless good fortune. Lemminkäinen is a handsome and brave warrior, eager to go to battle in the name of what is right, but, being boastful, also to advance his own glory.
The tale played on the Nimbus stage starts with Väinämöinen on his motorcycle being confronted by Joukahainen, a young braggart driving the abstracted car mentioned above, who claims that the road is his. Väinämöinen easily proves his superior power, holding Joukahainen in a death grip, unsatisfied with anything the young upstart offers until he offers the hand of his beautiful sister. Intrigued, Väinämöinen accepts this offer, thus unleashing a chain of events that make up the play. These include Väinämöinen being ambushed by a thief who stabs him and steals his motorcycle; Väinämöinen's rescue by Ansa, ill-treated daughter of the evil witch Louhi; and Louhi's demand of a sampo in return for having saved his life. This brings Ilmarinen, the only person who can create a sampo, into the story, followed by Lemminkäinen who embarks on a dangerous campaign against the witch. Ansa seeks freedom from her mother's constraints by joining up with the three heroes, under Ilmarinen's tutelage.
The struggle for dominance goes back and forth between Louhi and her minions, and the virtuous trio. Magical events pepper the story, such as bringing a dead person back to life by raking their dismembered body together, creating a kantelethe traditional stringed instrument played by Väinämöinen to accompany his songsout of the bones of a huge fish, and horrific curses and transformations performed by Louhi.
As played out, the story is engaging, a fairy tale with the grisly elements intact. Perhaps because it is out of context of the larger body of the original Kalevala, it does not deliver a sense of national identity or pride, nor offer examples of moral imperatives regarding the struggle between good and evil. The production's gambit of updating the story, certainly a well-meant effort to make it relevant to its audience, actually distracts from any possible deeper meaning the story might hold. Perhaps this is because it has been applied so sporadically. For example, having a motorcycle and car at the onset seems like just a gimmick when all subsequent travel is by horse, foot, or means of magic. Were those the only two motor vehicles to be had? Why, in the age of the motorcycle, are there no firearms, only swords and knives?
The liberal use of four letter works by the three "good guys" might be intended to sound more contemporary, but simply feels out of character, making them seem like rudely raised kids playing at being heroes rather than the real thing. The one update for the better is having Ilmarinen, the smith, be a woman. In the original saga, the character is a male, and the balance of a female with powers to do good, rather than having the only strong female be a witch, definitely fits our contemporary world view.
The performances are a mixed bag. Jim Ahrens makes a curious Väinämöinen. He projects a sense of grave disappointment with the change in the change of setting from ancient to modern times, and acts out his heroics in a lackluster way, as if he is wary of the whole thing. Heidi Berg is a strong Ilmarinen, certainly the most clearly heroic of the trio, who also reveals emotional depth when tragedy takes hold. Nicholas Nelson brings out the foolhardy braggart in Lemminkäinen, brave and skilled with his sword, but rash in his actions. We know that he has decided to be on the side of good, but we don't really see goodness in him. As the witch Louhi, Kit Bix is delightfully nasty and deceitful (full disclosure: Bix is my fellow Twin Cities reviewer for Talkin' Broadway), and as her daughter Ansa, Nissa Nordland Morgan has the right mix of grit and naiveté. Caitlin Hammel fares well as Lemminkäinen's mother, who conveys genuine emotions when forced to deal with her son's recklessness.
Väinämöinen is a song-singer and the original Kalevala a collection of songs, so it is fitting that the play includes music. On several occasions, actors do express their feelings in songs, with music composed by Luke Tromiczak, of the folk music group Blood and Sun, that feels authentic to the ancient and dark origins of the Kalevala.
As mentioned, the costumes are a mix of Starbucks and Prince Valiant. The set consists of a collection of metal bars hinged and folded to form a ranges of hills and mountains (different heights, presumably, representing different settings), twisted metal representing trees, and a pile of squared logs that appear to be the fire outside Väinämöinen's home, then are assembled to form the threshold of Louhi's lair. A bolt of cloth drawn across the stage to represent rushing rivers and lakes somehow fails to provide the clear imagery that is usually prompted by that stage-practice, making suspension of disbelief hard to achieve. Several puppets to effectively represent animals are imaginatively crafted by Rob Roberts III, while the lighting and sound design effectively enhance the storytelling.
The Kalevala is an engaging enough story, but in this production, the potential to reveal time-eternal truth or power is not realized. The most gripping part of the play, for me, was when Väinämöinen gathered a few local children and told them the story of his own origins, straight out of the original saga. The children were held in a spell of authentic storytelling, and at that moment, so was I.
The Kalevala continues through October 20, 2016, at Nimbus Theatre, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $12.00 - $15.00; $2.00 discount with Minnesota Fringe Festival button.. For tickets call 612-548-1380 or go to nimbustheatre.org.
Writer: Liz Neerland; Director: Josh Cragun; Set Design: Zach Morgan; Costume Design: Andrea M. Gross and Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Jon Kirchhofer; Sound Design: Jacob M. Davis; Properties Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Original Music: Luke Tromiczak of Blood and Sun; Dramaturg: Danielle Blackbird; Assistant Dramaturg: Ethan Bjelland; Fight Choreography: Brian Hesser; Fish and Bird Puppets: Rob Roberts III; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson;
Cast: Abdullahi M. Ahmed (Joukahainen), Jim Ahrens (Väinämöinen), Lana Bean (Ainikki), Heidi Berg (Ilmarinen), Kit Bix (Louhi), Caitlin Hammel (Lemminkäinen's Mother), Brian Hesser (Soppy Hat), Nissa Nordland Morgan (Ansa), Nicholas Nelson (Lemminkäinen)