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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Recent Tragic Events and Enchanted April

Also see Michelle's review of Carmina Burana


Jungle finds heart and humor in quirky Recent Tragic Events

Recent Tragic Events
Charlie Bethel, Kate Eifrig, Terry Hempleman, Janelle Ranek
Imagine staging a play about a blind date, set one day after September 11, 2001, in which the stage manager chats to the audience, author Joyce Carol Oates is played as a sock puppet on the hand of a zonked-out, half-naked woman, and a drunken card game devolves into thought-provoking debate over free-will and determinism. Dead tricky to pull off, right? Not so for Jungle Theater artistic director Bain Boehlke, who has a certain flair for quirky plays. With a strong cast, he taps the hilarity, anxiety and dread in Craig Wright's award-winning, Recent Tragic Events.

In the dark aftermath of 911, this romantic, absurdist and philosophical comedy's themes revolve around chance versus choice in a world where random events and coincidence can be an overwhelming force in our lives.

Andrew, a wholesome but gawky book shop owner comes to attractive advertising executive Waverly's apartment on a blind date. The TV is on throughout the evening, endlessly reporting the horror of the fallen Twin Towers. Waverly is as tense as stressed steel; her twin sister is missing in New York. Soon, Ron, her spacey musician neighbor turns up, then his girlfriend and, well yes, sort of, Joyce Carol Oates arrives.

Wright revels in tongue-in-cheek, metaphorical fun. There's not quite a play within a play, but wry Janet Paone as the stage manager, a natural comic, opens Tragic Events with the flip of a coin that might change the course of the play, thereby giving a nod to the randomness of life. Yet, god-like, she also closes the play, by reading instructions and cues from the script, suggesting pre-determinism. Wright's dialogue crackles with originality, as when the puppet, Oates, informs Ron, he is a puppet of the cosmos.

Boehlke's five-member ensemble cast also appear to revel in Wright's character-driven script. Charlie Bethel wears Andrew's uncertain skin as though it were his own. He's awkward but enchanted with Waverly and, when she takes his hand in a tender moment, needing reassurance, shy Andrew's feet shift in the opposite direction. Bethel's Andrew becomes so engaged in Waverly's pain of waiting for news of her sister that tears wet his cheeks. Janelle Ranek's Waverly comes over as hard and a bit abrasive in her anxiety. Balding, scruffily pony-tailed Terry Hempleman excels as Ron, a new-agey, parasitic but well-meaning musician, and brave Kate Eifrig spends much of the second act vacant-eyed and bare-bummed, but comes into her own in the shared role of Oates.

Boehlke's clever set of Waverly's apartment tells much about its single, yuppie occupant in its details - art posters and photos, plenty of books and CDs, a taste for the modern, but a well-sat-in couch and chair, perhaps a cast-off from mother.

Tragic Events is a poignant and witty comedy, haunted by 911's shadow. It yanks its audiences around a bit, but you'll be tickled by how it dupes you, and it will set you thinking about determinism and personal responsibility in an unpredictable world.

Recent Tragic Events September 17 - November 6, 2004. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays - 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. $20 - $30. Jungle Theater, 2951, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-822-7063, or www.jungletheater.com.

Photo: Ann Marsden


Enchanted April enchants at Park Square

Enchanted April
Colleen Hennen Andrea Wollenberg, and Randy Sue Latimer Graves
I like those occasions when I am reviewing a play, making blind notes in a darkened theater, and I become so engaged with what's happening on stage that I forget to take notes. That happened to me at Park Square's charming Enchanted April, Tony Barber's Tony nominated adaptation of Elizabeth von Arnim's 1921 English novel.

Enchanted April, an essentially English period comedy, is an ambitious play to mount, with its eight-member cast, necessity for sound British accents and its multiple set changes. Under the direction of Mary Finnerty, it flows through its entertaining two and a half-hour length with seeming effortlessness.

Beneath all the fun and froth, Enchanted April looks at the awakening awareness of women, long yoked by patriarchal Victorian duty to serve their husbands. It is 1922. WW I ended in 1918 but has left England a country of widows, and women voted for the first time in 1919.

Lotty and Rose, both married, live joyless, confined lives in London. Impulsive Lotty responds to an advertisement in The Times to rent an Italian villa that is bathed in sunlight and wisteria on the Mediterranean. Unknown to their self-absorbed husbands, they advertise for two more lady companions to share the cost of a month's rent. Their daring venture re-infuses their dry marriages with love and brings warmth to the lives of their two companions.

Rick Polenek's economic yet versatile sets combine with Michael Kittel's lighting and Montana Johnson's sound design to create dreary London in February in five different locations in the first act, and transform in the second to a sunlit, Italian courtyard in April, festooned with wisteria.

As the impulsive ringleader Lotty, Andrea Wollenberg is winning; Lotty's a strong woman, in a woolly sort of way. Wollenberg masters the mannerisms and tones of an Englishwoman and has a nice ability with comic timing. Ethereal Colleen Hennen as Rose, Lotty's co-conspirator, feels understated at first, but Rose is modest, a diffident, sad woman, who blossoms into beauty in the Italian sun.

Randy Latimer plays battle-axe Mrs. Graves, an elderly widow, with scene-stealing bombast. Dressed in black bombazine in the manner of old Queen Victoria, she lays waste to all around her, until Peter Hanson's Mr. Wilding charms her and melts her iron. Jamie Page finds feeling in Lady Caroline Bramble, the fourth lady, a young, bored-with-life, aristocratic flapper.

Steve Lewis wraps himself in the pomposity of Lotty's insufferable husband Mellersh, a condescending man who has ample comeuppance in a hilarious scene in the second act. Charles Hubbell plays Rose's rather weak author husband, and Donna Porfiri has fun as Contanza, the non-English speaking Italian maid.

The cast had yet to learn to allow time for laughter, particularly after Mellersh's incident, when lines, no doubt witty, were lost in laughter on opening night.

Costumer Elin Anderson, has had a field day designing period clothes for Enchanted April, and I look forward to seeing more of Finnerty's sunny directing.

Enchanted April, September 14 - October 9. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. $15 - $33. Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building, 20, West Seventh Place, Downtown St. Paul. 651- 291-7005, or www.ParkSquareTheatre.org.

Photo: Petronella J. Ytsma



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Elizabeth Weir



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