Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Almost Exactly Like Us and
Gremlin Theatre, Almost Exactly Like Us
Reality may take a hit in Almost Exactly Like Us, but the truth of human nature makes this new play by Alan Berks - currently receiving its world premiere by the Gremlin Theatre - ring with more truth than most "realistic" shows.
It opens in an unnamed war-torn country where Michael (Peter Hansen) strikes up a conversation with Zoe (Emily Gunyou). The two have little in common - they are both English speakers in a country where most of the population may understand "hello," but little else. Both of them are hiding secrets - Zoe teaches English to the natives, but is hiding from her past. Michael cannot escape the horrors of his past and has traveled to this country to confront the source of his pain. He has been joined by Anders (Anthony Brown), his brother-in-law. Two years earlier, Michael's wife (and Anders' sister) was killed in a terrorist bombing. Michael, a mathematician, searches for order through his revenge, while Anders tries to find solace in spreading the word of Christ. Zoe is both dragged into their world, but also drags them into hers, resulting in greater loss for them all.
And that's act one. Act two opens again with Michael striking up a conversation with Zoe. Only this time, they are in the United States, at an unnamed Midwestern Christian college. They are the same people, but now locked into another situation. Here, Michael's wife, Helen (Shannon Rusten) is alive, but finds herself increasingly constricted by the ordered life Michael has built for the two. Anders is here as well, as a non-believing eternal student at the college.
Again, the characters try to reach out to each other, but fail again through a lack of communication and ability to move beyond their own personal borders into a new world. Another blackout. And we are in a third version of the world, this one a true hell on Earth. This time, the only survivors are Anders and Zoe, but even in this darkest of worlds, their faults threaten to keep them apart.
Playing with time is one of the real powers of the theater. After all, the audience is already expecting a ritual of artifice with actors and sets, why not also play with the very structure of reality. For the most part, playwright Berks does a good job with the concept. Instead of focusing on the "gee whiz, isn't this cool" aspect, he quickly moves beyond that into much fertile territory - who are we and, given the chance, can we change our nature? What is freedom, not just the idea of democracy, but as to free will? And maybe most important, how different are we from each other?
Berks also crafts interesting characters to inhabit his world. Made up of infinite shades of gray, the quartet of characters shift in our sympathies as they try to navigate a complex mine field of emotions, ideals and external and internal conflicts.
The quartet give uniformly fine performances, with Brown and Gunyou showing considerable chemistry in their scenes together. Berks hides it for much of the show, but Almost Exactly Like Us is as much about these two characters and their search for meaning as it is about Michael and his search for order. Almost Exactly Like Us is one of the best shows of the young Twin Cities theatrical year and is highly recommended for anyone interested in the search as much as the answers.
Almost Exactly Like Us runs through March 24 at the Loading Dock Theater, St. Paul. For more information and tickets, call (651) 228-7008 or visit www.gremlintheatre.org.
Vince (J.C. Lippold) has a problem. The 20-something is about to move in with his boyfriend Ethan (Shaun Nathan Baer), which is good, but he's never told his mother that he's gay, not so good. So at Ethan's insistence, Vince takes the Greyhound back to his hometown to spend a week at his boyhood home, a place that he fled at 18 and promised himself to never return.
Mom has a secret of her own. It seems that Liz (Susan Brodin) has fallen for Abe (Duane Johnson). The old family friend has proposed marriage, but the lingering effects of the collapse of her first marriage from 20 years ago still haunt her.
Once mother and son are reunited, it's clear that the events of two decades past have locked both of them in a bad place. That manifests in younger versions of the two (Alison Mary Forbes and Baer), who are as trapped by their situation as their older counterparts.
The path the characters set out on is a tangled one, but one - the audience senses and the performers prove - that they have the inner strength to find their way out of. Creator Gregg Coffin crafts a somewhat neat package, but one with enough sharp edges to make the proceedings feel real. And nothing is given to any of the characters. They have to fight through years of self-imposed isolation to come to their points of happiness.
Mother and son are the best drawn characters, both in older and younger forms. The performers are also up to the task. Lippold has a fresh look, strong voice and is able to get to the conflicted heart of his character. Brodin domineers in her scenes with her son, but there are depths here that go beyond the almost cliched surface. The same goes for the pair taking on their longer selves. Forbes almost crackles with anger during much of the show, while Baer finds the mix of innocence and deep hurt within the young Vince.
The other men don't fair as well, perhaps since they are somewhat appendices to the story. Ethan doesn't move much beyond the bitchy boyfriend, while Abe is locked into the older romantic role. Still, both performers do their best with the material, finding nuance in both characters.
Coffin isn't as successful with the music. While pleasant throughout, there are few memorable songs in Convenience. Thankfully, one of the ironies of musical theater is that a good show can emerge with much more ease from a good story/mediocre music combination than a poor story/good music one.
In the end, Convenience is about being honest with yourself and the ones you love. Creator, performers and directors Steven J. Meerdink and Kevin Hansen understand this perfectly, and have crafted a show that is funny, moving and, most of all, honest.
Convenience runs through March 19 at Hennepin Stages, 824 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. For information and tickets, call (612) 373-5665 or visit www.aboutmmt.org
Photo: Roy Blakey
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