Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
If that strikes you as a good idea, you will have to wait to see it bear fruit. Toil and Trouble–the title, of course, pinched from the incantations of the weird sisters in Macbeth–is by the very prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson. Gunderson already has twenty-three produced plays to her credit, with every reason to believe there will be many more over the coming decades. Toil and Trouble is the seventh of those plays I have seen and the first that left me wondering if the playwright isn't a tad too prolific. Some clever ideas don't become actual good plays. At any rate, the adventurous crew at Yellow Tree Theatre saw merit enough in the piece to give it a full staging, but in spite of the highly capable efforts of the actors and creative team, the play just didn't take off.
Instead of ancient Scotland, the setting is the San Francisco Bay area. There is a recession–based on when the play was written (2011), let's say it's the 2008 recession, after the housing bubble burst. A trio of friends in their mid or late twenties share an apartment. They are all college educated, but clueless as to how to attach themselves to the American economy. Adam (Alex Galick) has an MBA, which you might gives him a leg up, but, you know, it's a recession. Instead, he is totally enmeshed in abstract theories that resemble the premise of role-playing games, his premiere theory being that baseball is the ultimate metaphor for attaining success. Adam wears a necktie at all times, apparently the only lasting take-away from business school.
Matt (Jason Ballweber) has a degree in history, which is leading him nowhere. His primary activity is debunking every theory Adam espouses and that, being absurdly easy to do, barely counts as an accomplishment. He desperately wants to figure out how to get money but has tried every job that can be done without leaving the apartment, e.g., online. (remember, this is before everyone had Zoom and work-from-home was considered the norm). Beth (Olivia Kemp) studied journalism or communications or something and has a job as a second-string sports reporter for a local television station–until she has an on-air tantrum, threatening to attack the onlookers, and finds herself out of work.
While Matt and Beth brood over the dearth of solutions to their "hipster poverty," Adam–who is forever hatching ideas–learns that miniature vicuna, whose luxuriant wool is extremely valuable, live on sparsely populated islands off the coast of Peru. His plan: 1) pick one of these islands; 2) stage a coup so that it becomes their kingdom; 3) sheer the vicuna; 4) sell the wool to China at an exorbitant price; and 5) high-tail it out of said island before a counter-insurgency can stop them. Being the idea man, Adam naturally puts himself in charge. This is where Matt and Beth (who join up to become the MattBeth team) feel the need to assert their power and things get, shall we say, dicey.
Written out, that may sound more amusing than it is in Gunderson's script. Oh, there are some funny lines. I loved, for example, that when Adam says they can easily invade the island he has chosen because no one has ever heard of it, Beth is quick to point out the flaw in his thinking: "You found it on Wikipedia!" Also most amusing is Adam's description of his job as a dog-walker. But too much of the plotting is so absurd that rather than being funny it becomes tedious. And the lopsided dynamic between Beth, who harbors aggressive ambition, and Matt, an emotional marshmallow, gets tiresome. The play begins to feel like a comedy sketch that got way out of hand and can only be resolved by ratcheting up the absurdity past the breaking point.
That said, the three actors seem to be having a good time throwing themselves into these roles, and all three bring as much of the humor out of the script as one could think possible. Galick is especially winning as Adam, spooling out non-stop ideas, theories, disclaimers, and proclamations heedless of how far off-the-wall he is. Ballweber makes a good showing as Matt, the naysayer in the group, who finds it easier to prick holes in others' balloons than to blow one up himself, while allowing us to see that he is in fact a puddle of insecurities. Olivia Kemp conveys Beth's ruthlessness, ambition and anger, though the script never gives us a clue as to the cause. Her ability to manipulate Matt to do her bidding is convincing, with Ballweber and Kemp playing off each quite humorously.
Director Brandon Raghu keeps the story moving along apace, and he allows his three actors to let loose their talents, which far outweigh the merits of the play itself. The set designed by Sarah Brandner is a hilarious rendition of a slacker apartment, cluttered and littered, with thoroughly exhausted furnishings, and random posters and other odd items adorning the walls. Samantha Fromm Haddow's costume designs are spot on. I especially got a kick out of Matt's "Oxford Comma" T-shirt. Jeff Bailey's sound design, Alex Clark's light, video and projection design, and Brandt Robert's props–oh, how that set is littered with stuff–all hit the mark.
Gunderson makes efforts to draw from some of the touchstones of Macbeth. The omnipresent Chinese take-out food littering their apartment provides Matt, Beth and Adam with fortune cookies, their statements standing in for the prognostications of the weird sisters. Matt and Beth are told they are vulnerable only to one not born of woman, for example, and there is reference to Birnam Wood, along with variations of "Out, out, damn spot," and "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." One of those tie-ins actually has bearing on the plot, such as it is, but otherwise they appear just to remind us that this is supposed to be a send-up of Macbeth.
There is also a careless lapse in the script. Throughout the play, Adam, a huge baseball fan, avidly follows hometown heroes the San Francisco Giants on the TV. When they make it to the World Series, a TV commentator announces that the Giants are playing Philadelphia. What? That could never happen, as San Francisco and Philadelphia are both National League teams. Does it matter? The idea, one would think, is to have the fantasy world to which Matt, Adam, and Beth retreat stand out in contrast to the real world. But if the world outside their bubble cannot be trusted to be authentic, then there is really no difference, and their lunacy doesn't really set them apart from the crowd.
While I am a huge fan of Yellow Tree and greatly entertained by the performances of the three actors on stage, along with the set that surrounds them, I am sad to say that, as a play, Toil and Trouble left me feeling like all the toil wasn't worth the trouble.
Toil and Trouble runs through March 3,2024, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. For tickets and information, please call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Playwright: Lauren Gunderson; Director: Brandon Raghu; Set Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Samantha Fromm Haddow; Lighting/Video/Projection Design: Alex Clark; Composer/Sound Design: Jeff Bailey; Props Design: Brandt Roberts; Technical Director: Zapiecki; Stage Manager: Constance Brevell; Assistant Stage Manager: Katrina Stelk.
Cast: Jason Ballweber (Matt), Alex Galick (Adam), Olivia Kemp (Beth).