Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Hells Canyon
Theater Mu
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Wine in the Wilderness and Alice in Wonderland

Becca Claire Hart, Ryan Colbert, Matt Lytle,
Gregory Yang, and Kaitlyn Cheng

Photo by Rich Ryan
Hells Canyon is a ten-mile-wide gash in the earth that runs about 130 miles, sitting on the border between sections of eastern Oregon, western Idaho, and eastern Washington state. It was carved by the cascading water of the Snake River and is the deepest canyon in North America, deeper even than the Grand Canyon. Much of it remains an inaccessible wilderness.

One other key fact is that in 1887, Hells Canyon was the site of a gruesome event, known alternately as the Snake River or the Hells Canyon Massacre. Thirty-four Chinese gold miners were ambushed and killed–hacked to death, based on the evidence gathered–by a gang of robbers. Some of the perpetrators were put to trial, but none of them were convicted. Whether the ferocity of these slayings was triggered only by a desire for the miners' gold, or fueled by anti-Chinese hatred that was rampant in the American West was never proven, but it doesn't seem too hard to hazard a guess.

This brings us to Hells Canyon, the new play by Keiko Green being given a lavish world premiere by Theater Mu on the stage of the Jungle Theater. Green has imagined a group of five millennial-looking adults who have arrived at a rustic (though nicely updated) cabin deep in the Hells Canyon wilderness. Four of these characters are in a low-wattage rock band waiting for the big time. Their intent right now is to enjoy being away from the thrum of the city, to re-connect now that two of the band members–married couple Ben and Claire–have returned from a low-profile East Coast tour playing coffee houses and other small venues, and to have a last wild time together before Ben and Claire assume the responsibilities of parenthood.

The couple are expecting twin boys, being carried for them by the fifth member of cabin group, Ariel, their surrogate. Though not in the band, Ariel has close connections to it: bandmember Tommy is her brother and bandmember Doug is her ex-boyfriend. Ariel and Doug broke up a year before, and there remains a feeling of discomfort between them.

It is of consequence that Ariel and Tommy are Chinese, and that the cabin the group is renting sits on the site of the massacre. Ariel knows this; in fact, she was the only one who knew anything about the massacre, which is certainly plausible as numerous atrocities committed against immigrants, people of color, and indigenous peoples have been left out of history books. She tells her friends about the massacre as well as a rumor that the ghost of one of the miners resides on the property–but only after they have made their way up and down treacherous roads to reach it, and are settled in. But what can they do? There they are, stocked with massive amounts of alcohol, and not really the types to believe old wives' tales about ghosts.

Well, if we have learned anything from Chekov, we know that, as with a gun, if a ghost appears in Act I, there will be some spooky action ahead. The play, however, is in no hurry to get there. In fact, the first third or so of it feels more like a sitcom, making sport of it's set up: a rock and roll couple, their surrogate, the surrogates ex, and–as the odd-man-out–the surrogate's brother. For example, there is the matter of sleeping arrangements on the available beds. We laugh as Ben and Claire, who are white, try–pathetically–to present themselves as totally woke to their white privilege, that otherwise would give them the upper hand over Tommy and Ariel–and Doug, who is biracial, Black and white. It's having fun with the current zeitgeist.

About a third of the way in, the tone shifts away from light humor, but not yet to the truly dark side. It becomes a power play, triggered by a revealed secret that negates the humor in Ben and Claire's protestations of wokeness. The affluent, white couple is positioned against the striving Asian siblings, with Doug caught uncomfortably between them. This runs through about another third of the play until, Yes! The haunting begins. When it arrives, it is spectacularly staged, using every facet of the artistic team's talents, wondrously webbed together by director Katie Bradley.

Hells Canyon looks great. Erik Paulson's set offers a marvelously complete cutaway of a vacation cabin, with a central common area, open-space living room, and kitchen flanked by a bedroom on each side. We also see tall tree trunks through the windows, creating a sense of their humans' space being encircled by nature, perhaps a source of spiritual renewal or, just as likely, a deadly threat.

The work of lighting designer Karin Olson, sound designer and composer Katherine Horowitz, projection designers Peter Morrow and Ryan Stopera, and prop designer Kenji Shoemaker collectively creates an atmosphere that brilliantly pits the protective shell of the modernized cabin against the unknown, terrifying (eventually) elements beyond its walls. Fight choreographer Annie Enneking puts her well-known talent to work, managing fight scenes that escalate, like the tone of the play, from playful tussling among guys, to seething tempers triggered for a brawl, to horrendous violence.

All five actors in Hells Canyon give committed performances, bringing their characters vividly to life, while Bradley draws effective interplay among them that underscores what connects and what divides these five individuals. Kaitlyn Cheng, as Ariel, gives a stunning performance, starting out reticent and shy–well for one thing, she alone refrains from alcohol in deference to the children she is carrying while the others become increasingly garrulous the more they drink–but as the wheels of the story turn and Ariel begins to reveal secrets, we see her using her reserve as a means of manipulating things to her advantage. Eventually, she becomes a rabid force field, capable of both bearing and delivering terrific pain.

Matt Lytle's performance as Ben conveys a nonchalant attitude, a righteous "bro" who enjoys his party time, but whose status as a white, straight, well-off male unwittingly (perhaps) allows him to assume that if someone has to be in charge, it's him. As Claire, Becca Claire Hart depicts a degree of dependency on Ben, as well as a propensity for anxiety attacks, especially regarding the wellbeing of her two unborn sons.

Gregory Yang imbues Tommy with a bottle rocket full of energy, whether early on when the energy is applied to partying with gusto, midstream when it is funneled into his antagonism toward Ben, or when he is called on to deal with a huge responsibility in the shadow of encroaching terror. Doug may be the most challenging character of the lot, as he must balance on a thin boundary between the factions around him, even as he carries a burden of his own issues–which remain unknown to us until a beautifully rendered closing monologue–and Ryan Colbert nails the role with a bulls-eye performance.

So we have an assemblage of strong work–outstanding designs, excellent performances, adroit direction–yet Hells Canyon is missing something: focus. The play veers from the light tones of its opening to the jagged interactions of egos concerning the band, to a simmering strain between the parents-to-be and their surrogate mom, until it erupts into an all-out horror show. All the tonal shifts make it difficult to establish an emotional connection either to characters or to their narrative arc.

Though I greatly enjoyed Hells Canyon and admire its artistry, afterward I found myself wondering "What was it about?" and had a hard time finding an answer beyond a recitation of the plot. That is, until that final, poignant monologue had me sit up and think, "Now that's a person I care about, whose story I want to know more about." But it arrives too late, and without a clear connection to the mayhem that precedes it to answer all the questions that Hells Canyon raises.

Hells Canyon, a Theater Mu production, runs through March 17, 2024, at Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For information and tickets, please visit or call 651-789-1012.

Playwright: Keiko Green; Director: Katie Bradley; Scenic Design: Erik Paulson; Costume Design: Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Designer & Composer: Katherine Horowitz; Props Design: Kenji Shoemaker; Projections Design: Peter Morrow, Ryan Stopera; Fight Choreography: Annie Enneking; Intimacy Director: Sophie Peyton: Dramaturg: KT Shorb; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Keara J. Lavandowska; Assistant Director: Emma Y. Lai; Technical Co-Directors: Austin Stiers, Erin C. Gustafson; Production Manager: Garrett Obrycki.

Cast: Kaitlyn Cheng (Ariel), Ryan Colbert (Doug), Becca Claire Hart (Claire), Matt Lytle (Ben), Gregory Yang (Tommy).