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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul  

Timing Works For
Do You Want To Know A Secret?

Stephen D'Ambrose, Maggie D'Ambrose, Barbara Kingsley
In America's current climate of national fear and an administration that rationalizes spying on its citizens, Fortune's Fool Theatre's premiere of Do You Want To Know A Secret? by Daniel Pinkerton takes on timely relevance. The action centers on the lives of Karen and Walter Berger and their daughter Erika, who live under the repressive Honecker regime in East Germany in the 1980s. The action cuts between archival-looking footage of Walter speaking to an interrogator, and his family life. I was intrigued as I plaited the story's threads together, and the play becomes riveting in the second act.

Capable Leah Cooper directs the two and a quarter hour-long play that reveals how an authoritarian and intrusive regime can destroy close family relationships. To help her, she has a trio of accomplished Twin Cities' actors, who just happen to be a real family -Barbara Kingsley as Karen Berger, Stephen D'Ambrose as Walter, and their daughter Maggie as Erika. They are uniformly strong, and the body responses between them feel intimate and natural.

Karen, a political activist who protests against the GDR's authoritarian regime, is in prison, serving a 10-year sentence. Walter is a self-professed coward. He toes the party line, works as a proofreader for the party newspaper, and is a loving father to 16-year-old Erika. They play chess in the Berger's simple flat, waiting for rare prison calls from Karen and suffering State-sponsored harassment. The State places false ads that give their telephone number as a source for fresh fish, and the phone rings constantly.

Playwright Pinkerton draws broad types for his two main protagonists, giving ardent Karen the same fatal flaw that haunts Creon in Sophocles' Antigone. She is absolute. For her, black is black and white is white; there is no shading. Ironically, she is as absolute as the regime against which she fights. Kingsley finds the bravery in Karen in a performance that becomes increasingly abrasive as she taps her character's outrage, after the fall of Communism in 1989, and she reads the surveillance file that the Stasi has compiled on her for over 20 years. If Karen is the flawed hero, Walter is the anti-hero. He's an unassuming, passive and loving Everyman, who maintains the stability of the family and retains his own sort of integrity. D'Ambrose realizes Walter in a nuanced role. Maggie D'Ambrose as feisty Erika lives the devastating fall-out of a paranoid society, where there is no privacy and where one out of every 10 citizens is an informant.

Greta Grosch plays likeable Anja, Karen's lively friend and fellow dissident. She's warm, amusing and pragmatic, and she offers balance to Karen's extremes. Harry Baxter plays chilly General Wolf Niedermann, Karen's Stasi father, an unrepentant player in the GDR's repressive apparatus.

Pinkerton structures this political play around alternating video footage and live action, with the video serving as flashbacks to Secret's current story. (The play is based on a real family's experience.) Videographer Mathew Foster makes footage of Walter's interviews with the Stasi look grainy and gives it unreliable focus, as though it were produced with cheap East German equipment by an unskilled operator. Pinkerton's dialogue for Walter as he responds to an unseen and unheard interrogator is subtle. At first, in a bleak room, it feels like interrogation, but in time, the settings become more informal and his tone becomes chatty and intimate, as he slips into a sort of collusion with his interrogator. The closing videos are of modern, post-Communist television interviews.

Erika's dialogue feels young and sassy, her use of expletives, authentic, but the liberal expletives by the two women, and in particular, savvy Anja's public cussing at a book signing, reduced her character for me. Otherwise, Pinkerton builds nice twists of ironic humor into the dialogue.

Grif Sadow's simple but versatile set, with its four cement-block corners and street lights strung with barbed wire, suggests Soviet-era block apartments and repression. Lighting by Ariel Anne Pinkerton deftly warms and cools with the mood of the play and spotlights changes of scene.

Secret is a thoroughly researched and well-produced new play that feels salutary as we grant more and more power to one branch of government.

Do You Want To Know A Secret? March 9 —26, 2006. Thursdays —Saturdays 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. p.m. Fortune's Fool Theatre of Minnesota at Intermedia Arts, 2822, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Tickets: $15. Call (612) 673-1131.

Photo: Scott Pakudaitis

- Elizabeth Weir

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