Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Apparently, we are not alone. Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri's razor-sharp play, ≈ [Almost Equal To], deals with these same concerns. Though perhaps the magnitude differs, it seems that even in Sweden, known for government healthcare, progressive family leave policies, and a generous social safety net, anxieties about being able to survive and advance on the economic ladder are common.
≈ [Almost Equal To] premiered in 2014 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, and has been performed in Iceland, Germany, Norway and Denmark. In 2016, the Minneapolis-based American Swedish Institute sponsored a reading of the play's English translation, and now Pillsbury House Theatre has mounted a production. The themes, the conflicts, the characters, and the hopelessness of their dreams feel totally authentic to 2017 American life.
Khemiri's grasp of the stranglehold economics places around those who do not rise above (or are not born above) the ranks of low earners comes from his studies at the Stockholm School of Economics (where he pursued a master's degree in business administration) as well as whatever lessons life has afforded him. In ≈ [Almost Equal To], he weaves together the stories of five individuals intent on beating off the nets of economic necessity that have them stuck on the ground. He pulls in a variety of storytelling techniques, including droll college lectures, a mock game show, dream sequences, and split personalities (two actors playing the conflicting views of a single character).
Early on we meet Mani, an adjunct college instructor of economics history, who opens the play with a lecture on economic theory. He is hanging on to his low-paying job in hopes of being selected for a tenure-track professor's position. Mani is haunted by his father's admonition, "You will end up like me; just wait." He won't believe it. His goal is to rise up the ladder and change the system from within.
Mani's domestic partner Martina comes from a family of means but she has rejected her family's affluence to forge a life with Mani, which requires her to work in a convenience store to make ends meet. She fantasizes moving to twenty-five acres where she can raise animals, plant a garden and have an eco-friendly, self-sufficient life, while she is driven mad by a job coach paid for by her concerned parents. Martina also is intrigued by a homeless man, Peter, who takes up a post outside the store.
Peter is adept at altering his tale of woe and style of delivery depending on the target of his plea. One who is infuriated by Peter's falseness is Andrej, a brash young man who completed high school, took one class at business school, and is now certain that the world is his oyster. We follow his trek as he celebrates the success he is certain to attain, confronts the maddening strictures of job application forms, visits the employment registration office, and learns exactly what jobs are available to himfar below his expectations. Finally, there is Freja, who has been fired from her job and seizes an opportunity to jealously prey upon the person who succeeded her at the convenience store.
Khemiri gives us reason to hope for a bright outcome for each of these characters, while also laying out in clear terms how great are the obstacles before them. Director Noël Raymond maintains a sense of balance between optimism and stark reality, while gliding between narratives and making shifts from naturalistic scenes to fantasy motifs and back again, with a buoyancy that is surprising in light of the serious business on stage. It's as if we are being shown the utter necessity of finding humor in the economic chains that oppress so many, lest we crumble into despair. The price of a bottle of champagne or a vial of perfume are used as totems of the cost of entry into the land of success.
Randy Reyes gives a stellar performance as Mani, creating a powerful sympathy for his noble ambitions, while Tracey Maloney, as Martina, captures the essence of someone who has rejected the easy path, but has not figured out its alternative. Jay Owen Eisenberg is terrific as Andrej, depicting his decline from self-confidence to disillusionment with every step forward. Paul de Cordova is spot-on as Peter, the homeless guy, and Sun Mee Chomet is chilling as Freja, driven to evil by the harshness visited upon her. Chomet is also swell as Martina's second voice during an extended sequence, spouting out Martina's unspeakable desires while Tracey Maloney maintains her civil persona.
The cast members take on other parts, such as employment agency workers, store clerks and customers, hiring agents, Andrej's mother and brother, the aforementioned job coach (a cracker jack turn by de Cordova), a clergyman who conducts a wedding ceremony completely hijacked by economic principles, and a sexy, living job application (I kid you not!).
Amber Brown's costumes are well suited for each of the characters, while Christopher Heilman's clever set includes built-in chambers that become liquor and perfume cabinets, and a drop-down panel that becomes a convenience store counter. Sound designer Katherine Horowitz has particularly enhanced the play with her work, with sounds that sometimes suggest a menacing presence that accompanies these characters, and Michael Wangen's lighting design aids in the shift between narratives, and from real to imagined sequences.
For a play that introduces several economic theories, and includes a large number of characters with intersecting narratives, ≈ [Almost Equal To] is surprisingly easy to follow. What is not as easy is to come to grips with is how one feels about the dilemmas it portrays, the pain felt by its characters, and the possible courses of action that might resolve their troubles. Some of you no doubt have been in their shoes, or at the least, have known fears of landing there. And what would you do? Is it the system's responsibility to assure a good outcome, a rise to "success" for each person? Does it matter if one follows the rules, like Mani and Andrej, or one makes their own rules, as do Peter, Martina and Freja?
With ≈ [Almost Equal To], Pillsbury House Theatre maintains its commitment to stage new plays dealing with themes that burn brightly in our public spaces to their stage. This is a provocative tragi-comedy, conceived with creativity, affection for the human condition, and a clear-eyed view of the barriers and falsehoods that block our promised pursuit of happiness.
≈ [Almost Equal To] continues through October 22, 2017, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.
Writer: Jonas Hassen Khemiri; Director: Noël Raymond; Translation and Dramaturg: Rachel Willson-Broyles; Set Design: Christopher Heilman; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Light Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Props Design: Kellie Larson; Assistant Costume Designer: Molly O'Gara; Production Stage Manager: Amy Abrigo; Assistant Stage Manager: Rosie Hartunian Alumbaugh; Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noël Raymond
Cast: Sun Mee Chomet (Silvana/Job Application/Laura Lorenz/ Martina 2/Freja), Paul de Cordova (Casparus Van Houten/Peter/Employment Agency Man/The Job Coach/Angelika), Jay Owen Eisenberg (Andrej/The Reverend/Laura Lorenzo), Tracey Maloney (Ivan/Martina), Randy Reyes (Mani/Liquor Store Employee/Employment Agency Lady/Customer 1, 2, & 3).