Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Children
Pillsbury House Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's coverage of 12th Annual Ivey Awards and review of The Liar


Kurt Kwan and Kate Guentzel,
puppets by Masanari Kawahara

Photo by GBG Photography
Sorcery and magic spells are integral to the plot of Michael Elyanow's 2012 play The Children. Indeed, Elyanow cast a spell of his own, shape-shifting Euripides' classic revenge tragedy Medea into a mediation on the impulse to take responsibility for combatting evil. Aside from the courage to act, the ability to recognize evil before it occurs and the capacity for hope to turn the tide against impending doom are blended into the dramatic brew. The Children is making its Minnesota premiere in a production mounted by Pillsbury House Theatre.

In Euripides' play, Medea is either a monstrous villain, a morally wounded victim, or both, depending on the interpretation taken by any given production or adaptation. Is she a monster who murders the two children she bore with her husband Jason in an act of revenge when he betrays her to accept the hand of a royal princess? Is she to be pitied, driven to filicide by her husband's faithlessness after he used her magical powers to achieve greatness, including capturing the Golden Fleece?

Elyanow pursues a different path in The Children. What if a member of the Greek chorus, instead of standing by passively tossing commentary upon Medea's plight, intervenes and swifts the children off to safety before Medea can slaughter them? This Woman of Corinth steals Medusa's book of sorcery as well, using a spell to transport the children, Brother and Sister, to a different place and time, safely away from Medea's crazed clutches. And what if the nursemaid to these children, who has nurtured them since their birth, failing to realize what Medea is about, sees the Woman of Corinth as a ruthless kidnapper and follows them through the warp of time and space, determined to bring Brother and Sister back to their mother's arms?

The Woman of Corinth, Brother and Sister, and A Nurse-Maid land in present day Maine, at a seaside cottage just as a category five storm is approaching. The Woman of Corinth hides the children from the Nurse-Maid when the local Sheriff arrives, telling them that they must evacuate the shore due to the storm. The Nurse-Maid sees the Sheriff as Medea in disguise and tries to turn the children over to him ... or her, depending on whose version of truth you follow.

The Sheriff is baffled by these zealously dramatic women, surmises they must be performers at the Renaissance Fair, but when he learns that there are children hidden on the grounds he becomes frantic. Already the storm has caused a car to veer off of a bridge, perhaps drowning those trapped within. A parallel story begins to form involving two children, Ben and Lily, and two women, Becca and Joanne.

The Children is gripping throughout, strikingly staged, soulfully acted, and replete with compelling language. In spite of this, at many points in its 85 minutes (without intermission) it is hard to track the leaps between the fish out of water story of the distraught Greek women, the plight of Medea's traumatized children, the contemporary story, and the Sheriff's role in bridging these. The play also makes large swerves in tone. At the start, the histrionics of both Woman of Corinth and the Nurse-Maid strike the audience as parody, prompting hearty audience laughter. As the play progresses, it becomes increasingly sober. Happily, by its end the pieces do come together in a satisfying way that generates its own logic regarding hope, love, responsibility and survival.

The children in the play—Medea's children, Brother and Sister, and the contemporary Ben and Lily—are portrayed by way of puppets beautifully designed by Masanari Kawahara, who had a long tenure as a member of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. The puppets' faces are molded in the form of their respective operators, Kurt Kwan and Kate Guentzel. Kwan and Guentzel give voice to the children while manipulating their heads and limbs, creating full characters that convey their emotions with total conviction. The use of puppets underscores the understanding of the play's origins in the Medea mythology, casting a sense of universality to their vulnerability and courage.

Tracey Maloney is terrific as A Woman of Corinth, acting with confidence in the correctness of her intervention, courageous and competent, a citizen who has been spurred to action with no looking back. Michelle O'Neil is her equal as A Nurse-Maid, conveying a near-crazed conviction that only in their mother's arms will these children be safe, and a paranoid-like certainty that everything and everyone is a disguised harbinger of their fate. As the Sheriff, Jim Lichtsheidl neatly moves from a small-town, matter-of-fact presence to a source of insight and bearer of legacy.

Noël Raymond directs the play with a steady hand that keeps its desperate parts on track with one another, while building suspense toward an ending that is hard to predict. Joel Sass has designed the seashore cottage setting to be both realistic and fantastical, constructed of rough-hewn boards joined at odd angles, an iconic ship's wheel perched over the door, and a hidden passage that allows for travel between the plays' parallel storylines. When the storm bears full force, the roof timbers visibly crash, aided greatly by Michael Wangen's lighting and Katherine Horowitz's sound design; sound and light also combine to create a beautifully realized underwater scene. Clara Brauch shows wit in her design of the gowns for the ancient Woman of Corinth and Nurse-Maid.

Watching The Children is in turns entertaining, confusing, stimulating, perplexing, and rewarding. At times the confusion is disconcerting, and it feels like there are gaps in the flow of the play. On the other hand, some confusion can be a good thing. It can prompt us to wonder what is really going on, who these people really are, and what course of action really is correct—just as these characters must wonder, just as real life is a confusing affair, even as it offers bountiful rewards. The play's inherent rewards and artfully rendered production make The Children well worth a visit.

The Children continues through October 16, 2016, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.

Writer: Michael Elyanow; Director: Noël Raymond; Puppet Design: Masanari Kawahara; Set Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Claire Brauch; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Prop Design: Kellie Larson; Fight Choreographer: Heidi Batz Rogers; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Assistant Stage Manager: Tierra Anderson; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noël Raymond

Cast: Kate Guentzel (Lily, operator of Sister), Kurt Kwan (Ben, operator of Brother), Jim Lichtsheidl (A Sheriff), Tracey Maloney (A Woman of Corinth), Michelle O'Neill (A Nurse-Maid)


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