King of Hearts and Going to St. Ives
King of Hearts and Going to St. Ives
It takes courage and respect to produce a musical that features "imbeciles" and includes mentally disabled actors. Theater Latté Da and Interact Theater do just that in a heart-tickling production of King of Hearts, book by Steve Tesich, lyrics by Jacob Brackman and music by Peter Link. Gorgeous staging and strong acting and singing hallmark this show. Add to these Peter Rothstein's sensitive direction and a sparkle that radiates off the Loring's intimate stage, and you have a hit that's irresistible.
Hearts is set in a French village on the last day of World War I and, true to history, hostilities are to end at a pre-set time. Until then, all "aggressive military action" is to proceed; this crazy logic of the "normal" world that wasted thousands of lives unnecessarily in WW I sets a theme for Hearts. The musical pits the sometimes contradictory, rule-bound thinking of rational society against the more positive, naive spontaneity of the asylum dwellers, often to superb comic effect. In the same vein, it also asks, who is normal?
On John Clarke Donahue's wonderful set that presents a foreground of a war-torn village square, the asylum mid-stage and the ancient buildings of St. Anne's deep stage, some 20 actors take the audience on a fairytale-like journey to new awareness.
The village is occupied by German soldiers, who are wiring it to blow up at midnight. The villagers have fled. Only the residents from St. Anne's asylum remain. The trickster-like Demosthenes, touchingly played in mime by Billy Tomaszewski, conjures the musical into being, and he is a guiding presence throughout. He points at the old-fashioned footlights and there's light, he flicks towards Denise Prosek's five-piece orchestra and there's music. It is mysterious Demosthenes who opens the gates to the asylum.
Wraith-like figures, dressed in white, sing, "It's scandalous how they have abandoned us." But once they venture beyond the iron gates and begin to remember the outside world, the asylum dwellers put on primary colors in Kathy Kohl's excellent costume design, and awaken to vivid life.
Likeable Joel Liestman as American soldier Johnny goes in undercover to try and rescue the village. At first, he's unaware that the people he meets are from the asylum. He's drawn by their frankness, simplicity and certainty that gentleness overcomes badness. In an amusing scene involving a card game, they take him to be their long-expected king, which leads to a delightful and very funny coronation scene. Through their eyes, Johnny sees society from an enticing perspective. He also falls for pretty Jeunefille.
Young Stacey Lindell sings Jeunefille in a clear soprano and captures the girl's innocence and openness. Josette Antomarchi, who has a Piaf-like impishness, fills the stage with personality as Madeleine, the Madam. Eriq Nelson, in cleverly bifurcated roles as a German and American lieutenant, barks orders at three hilariously spoofy German soldiers, played by Eric Wheeler, Matt Dahlstrom and David Bauman. As the mildly befuddled bishop, Tod Peterson enchants. Michael Paul sings from his wheelchair as the Duke; David Roberts plays Genevieve, a one-time circus ringmaster; and Joe Leary amuses as the fey Barber. Phil Epstein, Suzy Sauter, Jill Anna Posniak, Karen Thorud, Sam Videen, Tina Miller, Xavier Rice and Gail Ottmar complete an ensemble, rich with talent.
Watching Hearts, I surrendered to the musical's story and saucy sense of humor and gave up wondering who were Interact actors and who were not. Every role on stage is well earned, and director Rothstein wisely mixes actors in abled and disabled roles.
When peace is declared and the townspeople are seen returning, the asylum dwellers retreat into the specters that normal society expects them to be. I felt a sense of loss as bright clothes dropped away, eyes dulled, shoulder's hunched and feet shuffled back behind the iron gates.
King of Hearts serves as a metaphor for how we limit those who are different from ourselves by prejudging them, and it poses questions about the sanity of war. I cannot imagine seeing this musical without its capable Interact artists. They deepen the story, investing it with tenderness and palpable joy.
This playful production merits touring to other cities - why not New York? Don't miss this one.
King of Hearts April 21 – May 22, 2005. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Matinees Sundays 2:00 p.m. Monday, May 9 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15 - $25. Theater Latté Da, at The Loring Playhouse, 1633, Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 612-343-3390 or www.latteda.org.
St. Ives sets audiences thinking about the nature of personal morality and the individual's responsibility towards humanity.
May N'Kame, the mother of a vicious African despot, visits renowned eye surgeon Dr. Cora Gage in her cottage home in rural England. Both are women of intellectual stature. Cora invited May to her home before the surgery to make a personal request. The doctor wants May's dictator son to release four Western doctors who have been sentenced to death for refusing to resuscitate tortured prisoners in order for them to be tortured further. May, too, has a request. A shocking request that makes Cora search her deepest professional and moral principles.
St. Ives represents a dramatic challenge to director and actors because the action of the play is entirely intellectual and emotional and, structurally, the play risks loosing momentum in the second act when it covers repetitive ground. Director Carolyn Levy has Knight and Kelsey drive the brinkmanship-like conversations at a good clip, and largely avoids the problem of stasis.
Knight is a regal force on stage as May N'Kame. She sails into Cora's English home, dressed in costumer Elin Anderson's gorgeous Central African robes, back straight, head high. Her conversation is confrontational as she establishes that she is the equal of the esteemed doctor. Through her words, the audience learns of the brutal circumstances of her marriage and her love for and horror of her son. He has a dictator's paranoia and believes 75 percent of his people are traitors. May even has an African keeper-cum-spy who lurks in Cora's garden, watching the two women - a glimpse of the nightmare life in her country. Knight can do little to finesse the play's brief, didactic speech on colonialism, but in the second act, when the consequences of both women's decisions play out, Knight immerses herself in May's serene dignity and is at her most compelling.
As doctor Cora, Kelsey captures the quiet refinement of an achieving English professional woman. She's thin, intense and conventional in dress. Cora has her own ghosts. Her young son died at the hands of a black youth in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, and Cora feels directly responsible for his death. Playwright Blessing hints that she has a revenge motive, caused by this incident, but that rang false for me. Otherwise, Kelsey's Cora feels authentic. Hers is the harder role. May constantly chips away at Cora's accustomed sense of authority until, at times, Cora sounds shrill in her frustration with this challenging woman, whom she respects.
Set designer Steven M. Kath outlines a rather formal English cottage for Cora in act one and, in a dramatic scene-change, switches to a run-down African post-colonial garden scene in act two. The women converse over tea, a meal of colonial civility that serves to emphasize the cultural ties that both unite and divide May and Cora. Both women grew up with blue willow pattern tea services, whose design tells a sad story of self-sacrifice for love. When one treasured cup gets broken, the commonalities and incipient friendship between these two women seem to shatter.
The title, "Going to St. Ives" comes from a nursery rhyme riddle, in which it appears that many are going to St. Ives. But listen carefully, and you know that just one travels to the town. Metaphorically, the title of the play emphasizes the moral responsibility each one of us bears for the condition of the world, a subject urgently topical as we stand by and watch thousands die in systematic genocide in Darfur. Perhaps the riddle also refers to the final price one of the two women must pay for her actions.
As for my husband and I, we both felt our opposing positions were somewhat vindicated by play's end.
Going to St. Ives April 26 – May 21, 2005. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Friday- Saturday 8:00 p.m. Matinees Sundays 2:00 p.m. Tickets $28 - $33. Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building, 20, West Seventh Place, Downtown St. Paul. Call 651-291-7005/9196.