Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

An Off-Broadway hit and a rewrite of a classic open in Minneapolis

P H's {sic} is funny, poignant and in of need of momentum

(L-R) Brian Goranson, Tracey Maloney and Paul de Cordova
Like a Brecht play, Melissa James Gibson's [sic] doesn't tell a story so much as it dips into three chronic young lives that are mired on the margins of failure. But these are young people who have every advantage; they are attractive, educated, pretentious and going nowhere. Pillsbury House Theatre's production of Gibson's comedy captures the unexpected humor of her script, the prickly codependency of mutual failure and the play's unusual theatricality. But on opening night it still had not found its rhythm. Sometimes rapid and darkly funny, the pacing felt at other times, stilted, its pauses overly long.

This unevenness might be deliberate on the part of director Noel Raymond, an attempt to have the tempo reflect the patchiness of the three's existence; but it puts at risk the momentum [sic] needs to keep it's audience engaged. Several times I felt a need to chivvy things along.

Theo, Babette and Frank's lives are patchy. Theo is stuck while composing music on a keyboard for a theme park ride called "Thrill-o-Rama." He has the first three bars and no more. His wife has disappeared, and he's fixated on pretty Babette next door, who pointedly resists his advances. Babette, whose wallet is always absent, borrows shamelessly. She's a faux literary type whose magnum opus in-the-making is a compendium of 20th century outbursts that she believes have altered the course of history. Third along the pokey corridor is Frank, a sweet-natured gay man who attempts to learn the gunfire patter of auctioneering by listening to study tapes.

Apart from all being 30-something, single and unsuccessful, the three have in common a relationship with a ubiquitous and apparently successful Larry, an unseen character. Through Larry, Gibson seems to comment on how the defeated contribute to their own failure. The trio surrender their power to the mysterious Larry; he passes judgement on their lives, and they depend on him to grant them inclusion or exclusion from the fuller world.

They live in bare, shoe-box sized apartments, cleverly designed for Pillsbury House's shallow stage by Joe Stanley. Low walls, like office cubicles, define the apartments, and each has a sash window and an identical green door. The doors have substantial frames that accommodate the occasional slam, but sometimes cut off full view of the speaker. Through a knee-high slot cut high in the back wall, they watch just the legs move around the partly seen neighboring apartment, as a couple split up. The staging required for [sic] is a challenge. Apart form the four apartments, it must include a rooftop and a psychologist's office, and with the aid of Amy Finch's sound design and Mike Wangen's lighting, Pillsbury House manages the setting with flair, in a way that emphasizes the fractured narrowness of the three character's lives. A nice touch has the three lying on their beds, making hand shadow puppets that talk of their insecurities.

Most of the action happens in the narrow corridor. The three have nothing much to do except knock on each other's doors, gossip, accuse each other and engage in witty word-play games. Paul de Cordova charms as Frank, Larry's rejected lover, Tracey Malone convinces as the needy Babette and Brian Goranson wades deep in Theo's self-absorption.

In an ensemble performance that's like a jazz trio, each has a solo moment. De Cordova's delivery of Frank's botched tongue twister in unison with the tape earned him spontaneous applause. Less successful, Malone's Babette tells how she read a romance novel on the subway over an odd-ball old lady's shoulder, and Goranson's Theo gets two solo turns. In a fit of jealous outrage when Frank demonstrates more musical creativity than himself, he looses a cutting tirade at Frank; and in a hilarious turn, balanced on a third-floor ledge at Babette's window, he pleads with her, his voice coming and going as she whips the window open and shut.

Pillsbury House's [sic] finds the humor, isolation and reluctant need to depend for friendship on others as stuck as yourself and, once this production hits its stride, it will be a winner.

[sic] February 28 - March 29. Wednesdays through Saturdays 7:30 p.m. $26 -$30. Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501, Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call: 612-825-0459. Online:

A nipped and tucked Mary Stuart takes off at Park Square

Wendy Lehr as Queen Elizabeth I and Linda Kelsey as Mary Stuart
Photo: Petronella Ytsma
Minneapolis playwrights William Randall Beard and Matt Sciple took bold scissors to Freiderich von Schiller's classical masterpiece of 1800, Mary Stuart. They have sheared away the play's formalism, restructured it and invested the dialogue with a period version of "The West Wing"'s political quick wit. Where Schiller's original is reputed to roll in at a hefty three and a half hours of high poetry, philosophizing, and dramatic stasis, Park Square Theater's two hour-long adaptation moves with seamless grace and dramatic tension through the last three days of Mary, Queen of Scot's life.

It's a remarkable achievement. Schiller had each queen occupy the stage one act at a time. Beard and Sciple have both queens on stage, and the action cuts between them in smooth transitions. The result is an eminently digestible political and religious drama that pits two powerful women, one against the other.

Protestant Queen Elizabeth ruled England when her second cousin, Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, fled Scotland after the nobles accused her of aiding in the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley. Mary sought refuge in England. Because she represented a threat to Elizabeth, both in lineage and in repressed Catholics' wish to return the country to "the one true faith," Elizabeth held Mary prisoner for 18 years, finally at Fotheringhay Castle. Many in England did not accept divorce and believed Elizabeth to be a bastard and her claim to the throne illegitimate. To them, Mary represented England's true royal line. Plots, intrigue and double-dealing swirled around Elizabeth's court and around Mary. The play follows a hastily cobbled together plot to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary.

Ambition and the certainty of royal claim fueled both women. Elizabeth fashioned herself as the Virgin Queen and was a master strategist at court and abroad. Mary invited men's loyalty with her fabled beauty and royal heritage.

Park Square gives Mary Stuart a simple but elegant production whose strength lies in the potency of the two actresses playing the queens. In apt casting, Wendy Lehr portrays a decisive Elizabeth, a woman as quick-witted and capable as any man. She plays the duplicitous French ambassador like a lute and manipulates her advisors. But her woman's heart misleads her judgement of Lord Leicester. Lehr taps Elizabeth's strength and complexity, but she sails close to missing her regality when among her courtiers. Elizabeth well understood the importance of the perception of regality at court.

Linda Kelsey makes a natural Mary. She's beautiful, feminine, determined and regal throughout, even when she's giggling with her lady-in-waiting, Jane Kennedy (Ellen Karsten.) She effects every man who comes to see her.

Director Richard Cook throws the two queens into effective relief by having the male characters played comparatively flat. Steven Hout's Lord Shrewsbury comes into his own at the end of the play, when he describes Mary's beheading with true pathos, but Bruce Abas as Leicester lacks sufficient charm to beguile two queens. In the small role of Elizabeth's young secretary, Jim Halloran realizes a poignant moment as he understands and obediently accepts his role as Elizabeth's fall guy in Mary's beheading.

Elizabeth and Mary's titanic struggle took place in uncertain times against a backdrop of fear, spies, plots, arbitrary arrest and detention, interrogation and intercepted letters, an atmosphere that feels newly relevant for us some 400 years later.

Mary Stuart March 1 - March 30. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. and :30 p.m. $25 -$30. Park Square Theater, Historic Hamm Building, 20, West Seventh Place St. Peter Street, St. Paul. Call: 651-291-7005.

Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area

Elizabeth Weir

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