The Jungle & Nimbus Theatres
By Michelle Pett
Small Theater is alive and well and living in Minneapolis. New shows at the Jungle and Nimbus Theatres represent two ends of the spectrum of theater experiences available for audience members willing to venture off the beaten path.
Love me, love my dog. Some old dead dude said it and I believe it. The affectionate bond between humans and canines lies at the heart of the Jungle Theater's charming production of A.R. Gurney's drawing room farce, Sylvia.
Sylvia is the story of Kate and Greg, a long-married middle-aged couple, and the talking mutt (Sylvia) that tests their marriage. Greg is struggling with a midlife crisis when he brings home his flea-bitten friend; his "star" at work is descending and his marriage is growing stale. Kate is seriously anti-Sylvia (she calls her Saliva). Finally beyond child-rearing, her career is taking off and she doesn't want a dog. Battle lines are drawn when Greg begins to view Sylvia as a lifeline and Kate as the obstacle in his path to a more meaningful life.
Kirsten Frantzich is "spot-on" as Sylvia, the pint-sized pooch with a potty mouth; her physical vocabulary runs the doggie gamut from scratching to leg humping, with the occasional "kiss" thrown in for good measure. Cliff Rakerd's Greg is the understated anchor for Frantzich's physical comedy; we buy his performance as her besotted owner because he's subtle, funny and emotionally true. Frances Ford's performance as Kate, the third side in this whacky love triangle, is ultimately unsatisfying because she doesn't grow much beyond her role as the primary antagonist. Frantzich's true partner in comic crime is Paul de Cordova; his turns as Phyllis, a society booze hound, and Leslie, an ambiguously-gendered therapist, demonstrate his keen eye for comic detail.
Bain Boehlke's simple set design (a neutral upscale living room) keeps the farce firmly rooted in the center of Greg and Kate's life. Lighting Designer Barry Browning transforms the living room into a dog park, an airport, and the streets of New York City by projecting subtle patterns (leaves, Venetian blinds, a cityscape) onto a framed "painting" above the couch and across the stage floor. Costume Designer Amelia Cheever does a nice job transforming Sylvia from cast-off canine (oversized sweater, jeans) to pampered pooch (spandex capri's, mesh top) and charting Greg's transformation from salary man to citizen of the world. On the other hand, Ford's uphill battle with Kate is not helped by dressing her like an uptight middle manager rather than the English teacher she's supposed to be.
The Jungle's jewel box space is plush and intimate, designed for maximum comfort and entertainment value. Sylvia is much the same way. On the surface, it seems easy and undemanding, but its production demands a well-constructed script, polished comic performances and fluid pacing. Boehlke and his cast acquit themselves well with Sylvia, creating a little comic jewel worthy of their theater space.
Sylvia runs through June 19, 2004. Wednesday - Sundays; performance times vary. Call the box office for schedule. Tickets $20 - $30, depending on performance. Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis. Call 612-822-7063. Online at jungletheater.com.
Endgame is a classic tragi-comedy about four people trapped in a forbidding place who wait out their days arguing, cajoling, threatening, telling stories, petting a fake dog, leaving, staying and dying. Hamm, a blind, wheelchair-bound martinet is unable to stand; Clov, his servant, is unable to sit; Nagg, Hamm's father, is buried in sand up to his hips in a trash can; Nell, Hamm's mother, is going deaf inside her trash can. Nothing much happens to advance the plot; this quartet's life onstage is a microcosm of the audience's life in the world.
In his director's note, Josh Cragun mentions the "rich, multi-layered" quality of Endgame's writing. He also mentions the process of textual analysis he and his cast went through to create their production. Neither the richness alluded to in the note nor the dark humor inherent in the characters' situation are adequately plumbed in this production. Jeff Myhre (Hamm) acquits himself the best of the group; his storytelling is mesmerizing at times and his bit with the fake dog is quite funny. Terry Flynn (Clov) seems to struggle both with the motivation behind his lines and with Clov's lameness (sometimes he stumbles, sometimes he doesn't).
Cragun does a nice job creating a claustrophobic set out of six canvas panels painted to mimic plaster, stucco or a prepared artist's canvas; two round porthole windows exist just out of reach for any character to be able to "see" out of them. Liz Neerland's lighting design is problematic, alternately baking the set in high light or leaving actor's faces in darkness. Lighting and sound cues were sloppy and the curtain call was missed.
Nimbus' mission is to produce "theatre like you've never seen it before." Unfortunately, their choices in preparing the space and the attendant technical issues detract from their artistic product. Nimbus' Endgame is uneven and may not be the best introduction to their work. I hope their artistic vision is clearer when tackling the new work that lies at the core of their mission.
Endgame April 23 - May 9, 2004. Friday & Saturday at 8PM; Sunday at 7PM. Tickets $12. Nimbus Theater, Xelias Aerial Performance Studios, 1100 Van Buren ST NE, Minneapolis. Call 651-229-3122.