Ghosts at Theatre in the Round
On the surface, Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts and Trey Parker’s Cannibal! The Musical don’t have much in common.
Dig a little deeper - and they still don’t have much in common.
Instead, new productions of these works show the breadth of Twin Cities theater. Ghosts is currently running at Theatre in the Round, the longest running theater in Minneapolis, while Cannibal! is the work of the Mechanical Division, a group so fresh they haven’t even celebrated their first anniversary.
Both do, however, have plenty to recommend for the theatergoer.
Ghosts follows a traumatic day in the Alving household. Theirs is a large estate on an isolated fjord in western Norway. And there is trouble in the household. Captain Alving is long dead, but his wife has kept his good name alive, even though he was - in truth - a philandering lech. No matter the truth, Mrs. Alving has pressed on and created an orphanage in her late husband’s name. An orphanage that will be dedicated the next day.
Four other characters are connected in the web that the good captain created. There is the son, Oswald, a gentle artist who has just returned from France. Regina is the estate housekeeper, who has spent her life there, but dreams of escaping. Her father, Jacob, has his own plans - one that involves a house of ill repute in the nearby town. And the local minister, Pastor Manders, has not only counseled the family for decades, but also shares in some of their deepest secrets.
Along the way, the show touches on rape, incest, sexually transmitted diseases and the desire to sweep all of these under the carpet for the good of the family name.
Though the web stretches to all of the characters, the show turns on two of them - that between Mrs. Alving and her son, and between her and Pastor Manders.
As the protective mother, Muriel J. Bonertz gives a splendid performance for most of the show. Her character has depth that is hinted at in her first scene, and Bonertz lets this emerge slowly throughout the performance, until we understand this complex and deeply flawed character.
The two men aren’t nearly as nuanced, but are shown to have depth of their own. In David Coral’s hands, Pastor Manders shifts from thundering blowhard to willing conspirator to broken man to, finally, something darker and more sinister than he began. Coral gives a tremendous performance in the role.
Wade A. Vaughn sometimes seems too broad for Oswald (his stumbling drunk moments don't fit the feel of the rest of the show very well), but finds the character’s confused and heartsick core soon enough. Of all the performances, his emotional outbursts seem to be the most in line.
Mo Perry is solid as Regina, stiff at first, but slipping into the character by the end of the first act. Thom Pinault does well with the lecherous real face of Jacob, but isn’t nearly as convincing as the façade he presents in public.
Overall, the show works. Adaptor and director Craig Johnson has crafted a tight production that keeps the show moving forward - a difficult task considering much of the action refers to events long in the past and recalled during a single long night.
So what’s my caveat? After careful control for 95 percent of the show, it threatens to tear apart in the final scene, as the acting from Bonertz and Vaughn overheats into soap opera territory. It doesn’t help that George Lucas has pretty much ruined dramatic and elongated screams of “no!” for future generations of actors. Whatever the reason, the finale of Ghosts doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the show. It’s still worth seeing, not just for the largely excellent performances by Bonertz and Coral, but also to see that “moral decay” has been a part of our society for a very, very long time.
The musical is based on a film by Trey Parker, who would go on to greater fame as the co-creator of "South Park." Like the animated show, Cannibal doesn’t pull any punches. And like the show, it is quite uneven - brilliant moments are slapped next to awful jokes that are sandwiched by bits that just don’t work at all. Still, the youthful performers in the Mechanical Division (who did the adaptation for this production) have plenty of fun with their grisly material.
We follow Alferd Packer, a hopeless guide who leads a party of five on a winter trek into the Rocky Mountains. He has a simple life - dedicated to finding gold and taking care of beloved horse, Liane - that is turned upside down by the trip. Of course, he at least doesn’t end up as dinner.
The material takes shots at the conventions of musicals, the legends of the old west and the unrelenting cheerfulness of the characters, even as they face impending doom. There are some wonderful moments here, including the near show-stopping “Let’s Build a Snowman” (complete with tap dance solo); a bawdy number about a young man’s desire to have sex; and the finale, the self-explanatory “Let’s Hang the Bastard.”
There are also stretches where there is little more going on than the troupe of doomed miners wandering through the show’s spartan set. Cannibal loses much of its first-act energy at intermission, and doesn’t fully regain it until the end.
Yet the show was plenty of fun, and that was aided at the performance I viewed by a packed house who laughed, whooped and hollered with every twist and turn. It was also a youthful audience, which is important for the future of this art that we all love so much. While the older Theatre in the Round audience provides the essential backbone, it is the young audience at places like the Mechanical Division that will fill those seats in the future.
Hmmm, maybe in 20 years or so, we’ll see how Cannibal! The Musical would work in the round.
Ghosts runs through Jan. 29 at Theatre in the Round, 245 Cedar Ave., Minneapolis. For information and tickets, call 612-333-3010 or visit www.theatreintheround.org.
Cannibal! The Musical runs through Jan. 29 at the Fourth Street Theater, located at the corner of Fourth Street and Minnesota Avenue, St. Paul. For information and tickets, call 612-226-4941 or visit www.mechanicaldivision.com.