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ImbroglioGreat River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Winter's Tale and Loch Mess

In the photo: Ashley Bowen, Chauncy Thomas
Photo by Dan Norman
The Merriam-Webster (online) dictionary defines "imbroglio" as: a) an acutely painful or embarrassing misunderstanding; b) a violently confused or bitterly complicated altercation; c) an intricate or complicated situation (as in a drama or novel); or d) a confused mass. All four of those definitions are apt for the "imbroglio" at the heart of Melissa Maxwell's stunning play by that name. The play itself directed, by the playwright, is now receiving its world premiere at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, where Maxwell serves as co-associate artistic director.

Maxwell has stated that the play has been incubating for many years. The time spent was well worth the effort: Imbroglio is a terrific play that holds the audience spellbound from its jocular opening scene to its devastating conclusion. The cast of five actors in this production all deliver excellent performances that bring the characters and the relationships among them vividly to life. The first act opens with two couples getting set for their regular night of card playing: Herman and Viola, and Lou and Betty, are next door neighbors and best friends. They each know the others' quirks and flaws, but that makes them only more devoted to one another. Herman and Lou both work blue-collar jobs, Herman on the assembly floor of a manufacturing plant and Lou at a garage, and neither Viola nor Betty work outside the home, but both couples manage to own their own homes.

Imbroglio is set in the early 1970s, and these husbands still hold to the idea that a real man doesn't need his wife to go to work. Still, both Herman and Lou are dissatisfied with their prospects for the future, not helped by the fact that an economic recession has slowed down the vibrant manufacturing sector in Providence, Rhode Island, where the play takes place. Also, all four are African American, which means that when things slow down, they are the most vulnerable.

Nonetheless, Herman dreams of leaving the floor and rising to a jacket-and-tie job. To that end, he spends all of his free time obsessively working on a plan to modernize the assembly floor. He is certain that when his bosses see it, he will be rewarded with a hefty promotion. With less planful action, but diligence at his job, Lou gets a break: The owner of the garage is going to retire and offers to sell it to Lou, whom he trusts to maintain it. The purchase will require Lou and Betty to refinance their home, but how could he not grasp opportunity when it knocks on his door? Viola is happy for their friends, but Herman finds it hard to overcome his resentment, feeling that he is more deserving of success than Lou.

The fifth character in Imbroglio is Manny, who shows up at Herman and Betty's home, though timing things to avoid being seen by Betty. Manny has a hold over Herman–it remains hazy, but the implication is that he had done a big favor for Herman, and Herman is beholden to him. Moreover, Manny seems to have the know-how Herman lacks to complete the plan on which he is feverishly working, but Herman rejects his aid, not wanting to be further indebted to Manny. We do not know the origins of their connection–perhaps they grew up together, perhaps Manny is a co-worker at the plant–but whatever it is weighs heavily on Herman, who tries his best to keep Manny's visits short and sweet.

Herman is under a mountain of stress, between his efforts to finish his plan, his resentment of Lou's good fortune, and his fears about sinking further into Manny's debt. With the strain, Herman is drinking more. Viola and Betty each try to support their husbands' ambitions the best they can, given the era's constraints on the role of a wife. Viola suggests that Herman consider a career change, noting that he has always been better with words than with manual labor, but that would mean Viola getting a job while Herman goes back to school, and that is out of the question. What kind of man would he be, letting his wife support him while he sits at home and reads books?

There is far more going on among these five characters then I have laid out. The end of the first act leaves the audience with huge questions about what will happen next, so that the second act can scarcely come soon enough. By the end, we are wiped out by the suspense and emotional punch that brings the rising action to a screeching halt. We realize, too, that each person in the foursome, who seem at the onset to laughingly free with one another, is caught up by their own view of the situation, basting the facts with their own truth. Playwrighting this good deserves our attention.

It is sometimes a mistake for a playwright to direct their own play, especially its premiere staging. Maxwell, though, has a deft hand, keeping the audience guessing about what will happen so that we feel the jolt of each sharp turn in the plot. This season, Great River Shakespeare Festival has moved the audience from the auditorium seats in the DuFresne Performing Arts Center's mid-sized theater onto the stage, where tiered seating surrounds a thrust stage on three sides. This shift creates a much more intimate experience, and in tandem with Maxwell's direction, creates the sense of being in these two couples' living rooms, not only hearing their words but feeling the breaths that carry them.

All five actors are phenomenal. I mention Chauncy Adams, as Herman, first, only because his character calls for the most "heavy lifting," and Adams brilliantly carries the weight. Ashley Bowen is flawless as Viola, portraying a wife who will do anything for her husband, except his dictate that she stand by and do nothing, and we totally believe the descent of her feelings from devotion to apathy to scorn. As Betty, Eliana Rowe gives a terrific portrayal of a high-powered woman who will not step away from what she considers to be her responsibilities to her husband and her friends. William Sturdivant imbues Lou with a solid footing that allows him to accept life as it is served out to him, rather than doing battle against it. Adeyinka Adebola conveys the chilling menace that flows through Manny's veins, his icy calm making him all the more fearsome.

John Merritt's costumes wonderfully capture the styles of the early seventies, down to leisure suits and macrame sweaters, awash with orange, brown, and avocado green. The serviceable set, designed by Ivy Treccani, is a simple combined living and dining room that serves both couples, and Herman and Viola's bedroom, anchored by a solid bedframe. James Balistreri's lighting design and Scott O'Brien's sound design provide focus and atmosphere throughout. Song selections such as Sly and the Family Stone's "Family Affair" from 1971 and the Stylistics' "Betcha By Golly, Wow" from 1972 anchor the play in its era and the urban Black community. Speaking of the community, dialect coach Tarah Flanagan has done a swell job guiding the cast to deliver lines with the accent that is distinctive to Providence.

Maxwell has written dialogue that sounds completely authentic to these characters, and believable in the context of the plot. It is often funny, as when Herman wails to the others seated at the card table about his boss hiring a relative for a management position and says, "that's nepotism," and Lou retorts, "There you go, using them ten-letter words," or when Herman and Viola won't come to the door as Betty and Lou ring the bell, and Betty, who is certain they are home, huffs, "they're hiding like we was Seventh-day Adventists." The dialogue becomes deeply moving when characters express the darkness they come to face. Herman, as Viola said, has an ear for language and recites a poem with heartfelt depth, a gift he tries his best to suppress, as it is a sign of a softness he is at war with. One warning, both husbands utter terribly sexist statements to their wives, very much in keeping with the era, though hard to hear in 2023.

Imbroglio is a play that gives audiences grist for conversations about such things as how we face our limitations and embrace our gifts, our responsibilities to help a partner or a friend who does not want help, and the stigma that still surrounds those who live with mental illness and impedes their seeking treatment. Best of all, it is a crackling, snapping good story, expertly meted out over two acts, and given a sterling production by Great River Shakespeare Festival. I feel certain that somehow, Imbroglio is destined to have a future life. Hopefully, it will appear somewhere you can see it, but if you are within range of Winona, a charming town on the banks of the Mississippi, I suggest you seize the moment and see it this season.

Season 20 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through July 30, 2023, with Imbroglio in rotation with As You Like It and The Winter's Tale at the DuFresne Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona MN. Tickets: $41 - $51; Tuesday evening performances are $12. Student rush with valid ID: $5 at box office, 15 minutes before curtain. Discount Pass for all three mainstage shows are available. For tickets and information, please visit or call 507-474-7900.

Playwright and Director: Melissa Maxwell; Scenic and Properties Design: Ivy Treccani; Costume Design: John Merritt; Lighting Design: James Balistreri; Sound Design: Scott O'Brien; Wig and Makeup Design: Kenyana Trambles; Wig Consultant: Mary Capers; Voice and Text Coach: Katie Cunningham; Dialect Coach: Tarah Flanagan; Fight Choreographer: Benjamin Boucvalt; Intimacy Director: Tonia Sina; Lighting Design Assistant: Jacqueline Malenke; Costume Design Assistant: Brittany Staudacher; Stage Manager: Abbi Hess Assistant Stage Manager: Nicholas Carlstrom.

Cast: Adeyinka Adebola (Manny), Ashley Bowen (Viola), Eliana Rowe (Betty), William Sturdivant (Lou), Chauncey Thomas (Herman).