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Minneapolis by Ed Huyck

Penumbra Theatre Blue and
Emigrant Theatre
Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Blue
Dennis Spears and
Austene Van

Charles Randolph-Wright's Blue may be something of an overstuffed mess, but a talented cast and rock-solid production make for an engaging and occasionally touching evening at Penumbra Theater.

The play tries to be many things, but may be most successful as a window into the life of an upper-middle-class black family. The Clarks are a successful Southern family who have made their fortune for generations in the funeral business. Of course, that doesn't mean their life is all bliss.

There are plenty of resentments present in the house and more than a few secrets. Most of the secrets, as it turns out, center on Blue, a soul singer who is adored by family matriarch Peggy. The depths of this love play out throughout the show and Blue is never far from the action performer Dennis Spears is often on stage, performing the songs as they are played on a record player or brought up from memory. Blue eventually becomes the wedge between Peggy and the family's younger son, Reuben, whom she is grooming to become a musician, while he wants to make a life of his own.

Randolph-Wright falls into a number of traps, including trying to tell far too many stories than his play can handle, and pumping his script too much on the side of melodrama. It also appears that he wasn't quite sure where to end, since the play features two epilogues and a direct address to the audience from the adult Reuben, none of which really do the job.

Still, Blue can be plenty of fun, especially when it sticks to the details of the period and the characters. The first act evokes the '70s in nearly every way, from the fashions to the hairstyles to the nice mixture of music from the era and Nona Hendryx's original compositions. And, though the characters are often at loggerheads, they also evoke the real love that the family feels for each other.

The cast is strong from top to bottom, led by Austene Van as the annoying-but-engaging Peggy; Sandy Adell as the engaging-if-annoying Tillie; and Namir Smallwood as the adult Reuben. Director Lou Bellamy does excellent work with the material, drawing out the humor and pathos that Randolph-Wright often buries in his script.

Blue is no perfect evening, but the mix of engaging characters and talented performers certainly makes it an enjoyable one.

Blue runs through March 11 at Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul. For tickets and more information, call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.


Emigrant Theatre Thom Pain (based on nothing)

The titular character in Will Eno's one-man show has little sense of timing and has a hard time telling a story from beginning to end. That could be frustrating, except that Eno's script enjoys taking us on the journey far more than finding any end point; and performer Casey Greig immerses himself into the role until the actor absolutely disappears into the performance.

Like an autistic stand-up comic, Grieg's Pain possesses little natural timing, but his awkwardness only makes the discomfort (already at a high level with stories about dead dogs and unhappy relationships and the general malaise of living) that much more palpable.

Director Jessica Finney enhances this with a Spartan production that makes the rather comfy confines of Mixed Blood Theatre seem cold and heartless.

Thom Pain (based on nothing) runs through February 24 at the Mixed Blood Theatre, Minneapolis. For tickets, call 512-338-6131 or visit www.emigranttheater.org for information.


Photo: Ann Marsden 2007


- Ed Huyck



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