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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Guthrie Lab's Boston Marriage and
Jeune Lune's Ballroom open in Minneapolis

Also see our review of The Drawer Boy


Guthrie Lab's Boston Marriage jabs like fine stiletto

Boston Marriage
Nadia Bowers (Claire) and
Sally Wingert (Anna)

Typical Mamet Boston Marriage ain't. Rather, it's a period drawing room comedy, set at the start of the 20th century. Instead of knuckle-hard repartee between men, Marriage is packed with the elaborate language of high artifice and barbed wit between women, its manner more typical of Oscar Wilde than Mamet.

In the Guthrie Lab's sleek production, Douglas Mercer directs Marriage as a stagey spoof of upper class arrogance, and his three strong actors deliver Mamet's glinting language with cool vitriol.

"Adversary implacable," accuses Anna, "what does one not sacrifice upon the altar of your merciless caprice?" But then Mamet punches through the affected cadences with modern crudities like, "You fucked my life into a cocked hat."

Though form and language might not be typical, the theme of sexually charged, fraught relationships is all Mamet. Anna is a single society woman, who is no longer young and whose income is not quite sufficient. To use the Victorian term for what we now call a lesbian relationship, she has a Boston marriage with Claire, a younger society figure. To increase her income and, perhaps, her appeal for Claire, Anna takes a "protector," an older, married man who rewards her with wealth and a spectacular emerald necklace. But fickle Claire has fallen in love with a young girl, and this sparks fierce jealousy and recriminations between the two women. When Claire asks her friend to allow her to keep an assignation with the girl at Anna's house, unexpected consequences spiral towards silliness in the second act. To this volatile mix Mamet adds Catherine, Anna's unpredictable but enviably young housemaid from Scotland's Orkney Isles.

The delightfully pert Summer Hagen plays Catherine with scene-stealing appeal in a creditable Scots accent. Her Catherine might be as fresh as harebells in spring, but she possesses a native canniness that helps her navigate the rigors of Anna's deliberate cruelty.

Sally Wingert, a natural comedian, wears the redoubtable Anna like a second skin; she's all pose, arrogance and concealed calculation, as her arch Anna plays directly to the audience. In exquisite timing with Nadia Bower's elegant Claire, they both fire off rounds of epigrams like quick-draw bullets in a gun-fight.

The play, with its self-absorbed character types, has a cartoonish quality, and James Noone's otherwise realistic period drawing room set accentuates that quality with pillars, doors and architectural features that look like paper cut-outs, drawn in pen and ink. To reflect the lengths Anna will go to in order to please Claire, Noone decorates the room in blinding red wallpaper and a huge matching chintz swag. Valerie Marcus Ramshur's elegant costumes function like part of the set.

I couldn't like these women, not even put-upon Catherine, and Marriage is not my favorite Mamet play. But I couldn't resist laughter in the Lab's polished production.

Boston Marriage January 31 - February 22, 2004. $22 - $30. Call for times. Guthrie Theater, 700, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224. Toll free: 877-44 Stage. Online: www.guthrietheater.org.

Photo: Michal Daniel, 2004


Theater magic mixes with impressions in Jeune Lune's Ballroom

At intermission in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's mesmerizing recap of the history of our most recent century, The Ballroom, I wrote on my note pad, "This is a must see!" The second act also boasts wonderful scenes, but it's more diffuse and less entrancing. My recommendation, now? Ballroom is still too good to miss, in spite of the fuzziness towards its close.

The Ballroom

Jeune Lune turns its huge warehouse space into an old-fashioned ballroom, with three-quarter round seating. In just two-and-a-half-hours the ballroom witnesses vignettes of American life that give the historic arc of the 20th century, though not necessarily in chronological sequence, which feels confusing. Some vignettes are poignant, some outright funny, some disturbing; all feel authentic to their moment in time.

The piece loses steam when it opts for general impressions towards the close of the century. It's as though the company was overwhelmed with the hugeness of Ballroom's scope and had to chivvy it along to a close.

And the magic? Dominique Serrand directs an ensemble cast of 31 with hallmark Jeune Lune flair. A ragged immigrant couple step into the ballroom. The heavily pregnant young woman gives birth, and the father sets the baby in his wife's violin case, while she plays a lament, filled with weariness. The baby unfolds into an American flag, from beneath which an old German immigrant shuffles to his grandson's wedding and into a new vignette, a hilarious juxtaposition of a brash second-generation family and a stiff, established family.

A glimpse of what I believe to be World War I skims past. Prohibition follows and a Speakeasy and, in a chip of diamond-bright theater, a senator is cast as a ventriloquist's puppet. Charles Shuminski, as the ventriloquist, manipulates his knee puppet, little 11-year-old Max Friedman in precision synchronization.

Hate sidles into the ballroom. "America is not a melting pot," someone says. "It's a garbage can." Huddled masses troop on stage, among them a Hasidic Jew. The 1929 the Crash hits and desperation. Endlessly talented Nathan Keepers as a jobless worker saws himself into a trash can. Scenes varied and clever zip past, a 1937 New Year's Eve party, a rained out Fourth of July reenactment, and a 1950s prom.

Outstanding highlights in the second act are the superbly choreographed McCarthy era scene in a restaurant, the parting of a soldier and his gay lover, a witty "Just Say 'No'" campaign, and a touching scene among World War II seamstresses. Toward its end, the second act functions more like a collage, its historic references less certain and less compelling.

Visually, Ballroom fills the eye with Dominique Serrand's great concrete-beamed interior, gray-marbled steps and dance floor, and Sonya Berlovitz outdoes herself in an array of costumes for each era. In Marcus Dilliard's fractured lighting at evening's end, ensemble members in red, white and blue form and re-form in the colors of the flag.

Eric Jensen coordinates a melange of on-stage music, and Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Justin Madel lend operatic voices to Ballroom's engaging, quirky, but straight-eyed look at America's 20th century.

The Ballroom January 31 - April 10, 2004. $10 - $30, with first 50 seats sold for each performance at $10. Thursdays - Saturday 8:00 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-333-6200. Online: www.jeunelune.org.

Photo: Michael Daniel



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Elizabeth Weir



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