Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Red and the Bright came to life in the same way all of Nimbus' plays have, through a reiterative collaboration among company members, including the playwright, director, actors and designers. This process more often than not yields impressive works, and Nimbus' productions benefit from the intimate engagement of everyone involved in their genesis. Two perfect examples are A Life of Days and the play that preceded it earlier in 2019, The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West.
The Red and the Bright does not reach the high level of success enjoyed by its two predecessors. The play is set in an alternative world organized largely around astronomical phenomena and myth, and there is little in the way of technology. Society seeks answers to important questions and forecasts about events to come by scanning the stars, a role assigned to a person designated as the gazer. The elaborately trained gazers hold very high stature in their communities.
The Red and the Bright focuses on Motherpine Station, where residents are charged with protecting the Mother Cave, a place with great significance (though we never know the nature of that significance) visited by pilgrims. Their Gazer, Salm, and her young protegee Lark discover the approach of a red fog. It is the time of Crossing, some form of annual ritual, and a red fog during Crossing is cause for great alarm. We are in the dark as to what either a red fog or the Crossing actually is. The latter, perhaps, is a solstice or equinox. Or not. The red fog does bring about fearsome things, such as terrifying creatures, whose growl sounds like a lion roar mixed with a rusty steam shovel. People go missing and livestock is savagely killed.
Amid this onslaught of terror, a stranger named Trammon appears, bearing items that may hold the key to battling the unknown source of this siege. Perch, a brashly opinionated member of the station, is deeply suspicious of Trammon. To further complicate their efforts, before Salm held the position, Lark's mother had been Motherpine Station's gazer, which somehow caused her untimely death. Hence, Lark's father Tunk staunchly opposes Lark's desire to become a gazer, or even to associate with Salm. Seemingly occupying a leadership role is Evelith, who to some degree maintains order in the midst of this crisis.
So there we have the setting, the characters, the overarching crisis, and subplots. What keeps this array of interesting elements from congealing into a sturdy play is the absence of guidance as to what the parts mean. It is made a clear that the red fog is very bad, and that it's arrival during Crossing is terrible, but we are in the dark as to what either of those phenomena are, as well as the significance of the Mother Cave, the true cause of Lark's mother's death, how or why the being that may save themto which the title refersappears as it does, and more. Everything is attributed to cosmic occurrences, but we receive little insight into specific causes and effects. We need to guess about too many things in order to track logic in the narrative or have confidence in our understanding of the play.
While The Red and the Bright is not as winning a play as many past Nimbus works, the production is a triumph of design. Ursula K. Bowden's set offers a craggy. mountainous backdrop that conveys the station's isolation and the rugged nature of life there. Inventive costumes from Rubble & Ash are a window into this unknown world's sensibilities and resources. Props designed by Corinna Troth blend in perfectly as well. Alex Clark's lighting and the video design by Caitlin Hammel and Sal V. Cloak are phenomenal, working in tandem to convey the rising and falling levels of danger, while celestial bodies and changing skies projected above depict the importance of the cosmos to the way these people order their lives. Forest Godfrey's sound design is exceptional, with sounds of storms and beasts coming not only from the stage but from every direction of the theater so the audience feels surrounded by the same dangers as the characters on stage.
Director Josh Cragun shepherds the 95-minute play at a brisk pace, managing scene transitions so that we know where we are within the world of the station of the Mother Cave, no small feat in light of the unexplained elements of the plot. The cast performs with a conviction that indicates that they understand their invented world, even if that understanding eludes us. Faith Culbertson as Lark, Dana Lee Thompson as Salm, Ariel Pinkerton as Evelith, Brian Hesser as Trammon, Boo Segersin as Perch, and Mitchell Frazier as Tunk all convey an assured sense of their characters, though in the last case, we might have expected Tunk to demonstrate more force and confidence than given by Frazier. Overall, though, the cast does well to bring as much meaning to the The Red and the Bright as they do.
A word about language. The characters speak in Englishexcept briefly when Salm uses a tongue known only to gazersyet some words have been chosen to substitute for common English ones. For example: instead of year they say "turn"; instead of night, "dark"; and instead of good morning, "fair light." These make sense as physical phenomena related to each of the regular English terms. But they also replace father with "padeer" and mother with "modeer"the latter especially odd as the station's primary mission is to protect pilgrims at the Mother Cave. Why not, then, "Modeer Cave"? "Conception" is used in reference to somethingperhaps long periods of timebut I ever quite got it. And so on. The creation and insertion of this vocabulary is clever, but it doesn't really enhance the play, while having to figure out what the alternative words and phrases mean distracts from the larger matter at hand, of trying to figure out how the parts of the narrative fit together.
There are some good ideas lodged within The Red and the Bright, and its ethical lens speaks to the importance of community and of being attentive to the natural forces in and beyond our world. It has been given a stunning physical production and is well directed and performed. I only wish that the mysterious happenings on stage had been better unspooled in the course of the play so that we left the theater with greater understanding of what happened and why it matters.
The Red and the Bright , presented by Nimbus Theatre, runs through December 19, 2021, at the Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. Tickets: pay as you can, $5.00 - $45.00. For more information and tickets visit nimbustheatre.com or call 612-548-1379.
Playwright: Liz Neerland; Director: Josh Cragun; Scenic Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Rubble & Ash; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Sound Design: Forest Godfrey; Properties Design: Corinna Troth; Video Design: Caitlin Hammel, Sal V. Cloak; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson; Production Manager: Monique Lindquist.
Cast: Faith Culbertson (Lark), Mitchell Frazier (Tunk), Brian Hesser (Trammon), Ariel Pinkerton (Evelith), Boo Segersin (Perch), Dana Lee Thompson (Salm). Voiceover talent: Heidi Berg, Nicole Goeden, Song Kim, Laura Mason, TBA (Ronz *), TBA (Krill *). * The minor roles of Ronz and Krill are played by different actors every performance, as noted in the program.