Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Wedding Band, Electra, Don Pasquale and R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium
Staged in the cavernous open space of the Lab Theater, with no scenery save a few strategic pieces of furniture, Speechless begins with its five actors, each dressed in somber black, entering and sitting in a row of white chairs facing the audience. There are six chairs, but one remains empty. Without a shard of dialogue, we begin to realize that they are attending a funeral. For who? When we find out, we realize the funeral is not for a "who" but a "what"something distinctly American, and unquestionably virtuous, that has perished. We learn this from a few simple but evocative props and a few elegant gestures. Speechlessly.
Speechless has been collaboratively created by its acting company. They wondrously depict the transfer of the deceased's ashes into an urn as poignant, dignified and slapstick funny all at once. The same applies to unpacking the deceased's belongings, preparing and eating a humble communal meal, finding their places in the new order of things, with one of their number missing. Every segment is elegant, tender-hearted and funnynot the kind of explosive funny where dialogue builds up to a punch-line that sets of howling laughter, or where slow but steadily gathering forces result in a seismic pratfall. It is humor that comes from a warm place within us and recognizes our common humanity with those on stage. We have experienced their co-mingling of deeply felt wounds and passing indignities. Alone we are apt to cry or rage, but together we are able to laugh at the absurdities life delivers.
An early scene in which the mourners, one by one, break down in uncontrolled sobs of grief captures the humor of these sweetly human shared behaviors, and follows through as each, in his or her own way, regains composure. Who does not have a memory of that private moment of internal struggle to "stop making a spectacle of yourself," while everyone around you is in much the same state? And though these five are each suffering private sorrows, they depict their innate human connectedness by working collaboratively, serving one another, helping one another be seated, and providing comfort to each other. Their efforts to mop up a spill becomes a Sisyphean task, seeming to have no end in sight, and yet each picks up where the other leaves off.
While Speechless does not have a plot, there is certainly a narrative that moves from loss to process to slipping into routine to re-ordering life to regaining hope. The conclusion is a call to move beyond the retreat into mourning and routine, and to recapture color, invention and celebration. The imagery is elegantly simple, surprising, and extraordinarily uplifting. It is a heaven-sent tonic for the malaise inflicting those who, like the Moving Company troupe, have felt the death of a distinctly American virtue, and hungrily await its rebirth.
Each member of the company performs with exquisite grace, conveying meaning with facial expressions, gestures and posture, with more than a little willingness to act the clown. To give each actor a word of recognition, I cite Heidi Bakke's earnestness, Holo Lue Choy's courage, Steven Epp's tenderness, Masanari Kawahara's dignity and Nathan Keepers' fluidity. None of those do justice to the range, skill, and heart of those five actors.
Recorded classical music accompanies the piece throughout. Pieces by Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Korngold. The music mirrors the feelings from scene to scene, from maudlin to sprightly, bridging the emptiness brought by the absence of speech. Sonya Berlovitz's costumes are lovely, including the various ensembles of black mourning clothes that sneak in a puff of whimsy, and their transformation near the finale into bright bursts of color, with which they adorn themselves and one another. Marcus Dilliard's lighting design mirrors the dark and light tones of the work.
Speechless is less topical than The Moving Company's last work, Refugia, presented last spring at the Guthrie. Both shows grapple with concerns over human dilemmas writ large, but Speechless takes a larger framed approach that is more personal than overtly political, and to me, achieves greater success. Speechless requires patience, as it moves at a deliberate, thoughtful pace. The images on stage are beautifully devised, keeping the viewer constantly engrossed, but they take the time needed to roll from one to the next, without rushing to the next surprise or laugh line. Patience will be well rewarded by the beauty of the work and the compassion of its heart. It may even offer a bit of hope to those waiting for the rebirth of that element of American life that seems comatose, if not dead: patience, grace and generosity of spirit can sustain us until brightness returns.
Speechless, produced by The Moving Company, plays at The Lab Theater, 700 1st Street North, Minneapolis MN through November 4, 2017. Tickets: $32 $20.00 for student. For tickets and information, call 612-333-7977 or visit themovingco.org or www.thelabtheater.org.
Conceived by: Steven Epp, Dominique Serrand and Nathan Keepers; Created by: the company; Director and Set Design: Dominique Serrand; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Justin Burk: Music: Brahms, Elgar, Korngold, Schubert and Tchaikovsky.
Cast: Heidi Bakke, Holo Lue Choy, Steven Epp, Masanari Kawahara and Nathan Keepers