Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Frank Theatre is a masterful purveyor of epic theatre in the Twin Cities. A prime example is director Wendy Knox's rollicking production of The Visit, now running in an unlikely, but (it turns out) fabulous setting amid historic railroad cars at the Minnesota Transportation Museum. The Visit's opening and closing scenes take place at the railroad station in Güllen, a town besieged by closed factories, decaying buildings, unemployment, and rampant weltschmerza German word for despair caused by comparing the ideal world to the actual one. Speaking of German words, Güllen translates as liquid excrement which gives you an idea of how foul this town has become.
As we meet the populace of Güllenand with a large cast of twenty it feels like we meet them allthey are eagerly awaiting the impending arrival of Claire Zachanassian, the wealthiest woman in the world. Claire was born in Güllen, where she had a passionate youthful romance with a young man named Anton Ill, who grew up to become the most well-liked man in town. However, when Claire, at age 17, became pregnant, Anton denied paternity with a ruthless lie. The townspeople then turned viciously against Claire, forcing her to leave Güllen find work in a brothel. But Claire wasn't going to take her situation lying down, so to speak, and through a string of carefully chosen and conveniently mortal husbands, became fabulously wealthy and noted for her generous gifts to communities in need.
Now, all of Güllen hope that their native daughter, back for the very first time, will look kindly on them. They conveniently forget the circumstances that drove her away and welcome her with banners, parades, a children's choir, and gymnastic feats. Indeed, Claire has such beneficence in mind, but with a shocking condition: a gift of one billion dollars divided between the town and its citizensin exchange for Anton's life. Hearing this, the townspeople, led by their politically sly mayor, recoil: yes, they need money, but they have their principles, their sense of decency. To which Claire crisply replies "Thank you, Mayor. I can wait."
And wait she does, as her proposition hangs. How the town processes the significance of her offer and its effect on Anton, his youthful brazen lie having caught up with him, provides a lesson on morality, ambiguity, revenge, justice, unrequited love, democracy, and the folly of buying on credit. That is really a hefty curriculum for one play, but Dürrenmatt, with Knox's guiding hand, pulls it off.
On top of that, The Visit is also consistently funny. Certainly, it is the epitome of gallows humor, but funny it is. Dürrenmatt has crafted a satire on what modern society considers moral behavior, and how the norms of "good" and "evil" can be modified through the lens of what is needed. Building on that, the sense of what is needed can expand, depending on what one already has. Similarly, the burdens one carries can always be viewed as weightier than the other fellow's, as when the Mayor tells Anton, who is sweating over whether or not the town council will accept Claire's offer, "you think this is bad for you? It's even worse for us," being the ones who have to make the dreadful decision. The mayor genuinely believed that as he said it, but no way around it: it's worse for the man facing death. Subtle things reflect Dürrenmatt's sly sense of fun, such as naming the hotel where Claire and her entourage are lodged The Golden Apostle, e.g., missionary of wealth.
Knox makes good use of the environment at Minnesota Transportation Museum, staging the play facing the nose of a locomotive, so that one entry way for the actors is a long walk alongside it, adding depth and a tension as a character approaches. She moves her twenty cast members (many of whom are double or triple cast) around with the ease of a master chess player. Dürrenmatt devised the play to have the feel of an allegory, with characters given broad titles, such as "The Pastor," "The Teacher," "The Mayor," and "The Policeman," each a type rather than a fully formed person. With Knox's keen grasp of epic theatre, such types do not stand against the play, but reinforce its ability to provoke thinking about the dissonance raised by its themes, not about the psychology of individuals.
The characters of Claire Zachanassian and Anton Ill, however, are well fleshed out, revealing layer by layer the feelings they have toward one another and their sense of what justice means in the context of their lives. Katherine Ferrand is marvelous as the billionaire, always in control of herself and everyone around her. She can be kind and make generous gestures, but never lets down the scepter of dominance that money affords her, and that makes her feel invincible. When she says that her call for Anton's life is not born of hatred, but of a perversion of love, we have no reason to doubt her, as she has no need to say anything she doesn't believe. Mark Rhein portrays Anton Ill's descent from the town's most popular man and designated next mayor, to the victim of a macabre call for delayed justice, to a disintegrating cork keeping a healing elixir of money from pouring down on Güllen. Rhein captures the disintegration of Anton's psyche, clinging to life even as his encroaching sense of guilt eats like an acid through his resolve. In Ferrand and Rhein's scenes together, it is not hard to imagine them decades earlier, intoxicated with love without any idea of what it will cost them.
Other standouts in the cast include Gary Briggle as the corruptible mayor who believes he can defend the town's honor and its revenue stream without contradiction; Heather Bunch as the teacher, who understands how the people of Güllen have boxed themselves into a morally indefensible corner and fights valiantly to change their course; Carl Schoenborn as Bobby, Claire's butler who gave up a prestigious position to do Mrs. Zachanassian's bidding (and at a much higher salary); and Vinecia Coleman as the pastor who offers what comfort he can to Anton's raging soul, but never forgets the cost of the new bell in the church tower.
Every member of the design team has done superb work. Joe Stanley's set makes clever use of the available space within the museum, shifting between railroad station, town square, Anton's general store and upstairs apartment, church, the terrace of the Golden Apostle Hotel, and more with the movement of a few simple set pieces. Kathy Kohl has designed costumes that cheerily accentuate the stereotype aspect of each character, while giving Claire outrageously complicated fashions that scream "I am rich," and Anton wears the simple garb of a working man. Mike Wangen's lighting places much of the action, fittingly, in dark shades, while drawing our focus to the placement and tone of each scene. Dan Dukich has devised a wonderful collection of sounds: the sounds of trains (both arrivals and departures), birds, Anton pacing in his apartment over his store, and contributed music that subtly enhances the play's impact.
On hearing the plot of The Visit, one might think, "too bizarre, too depraved, too depressing." I assure you, while it has those elements, they are held in check by the playwright's insistence that we not passively accept what we see on stage, but consider how it reflects our world and challenges us to stand against it. In that sense, it offers courage and invites us to evaluate our moral resolve. All that, and hearty laughter too. And, as a bonus, during intermission the audience is free to wander about the museum's assemblage of historic railroad cars. To sum it up "All aboard!" for The Visit.
Frank Theatre's The Visit, through October 21, 2018, at the Minnesota Transportation Museum, 193 Pennsylvania Avenue NE, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25, $22 for students and seniors. For tickets go to www.franktheatre.org or call 612-724-3760.
Playwright: Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Design: Joseph Stanley; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Light Design: Mike Wangen; Composer and Sound Design: Dan Dukich; Properties Design: Kellie Larson; Dramaturg: Beth Cleary; Stage Manager: Glenn Klapperich; Directorial Assistance: Jon Cranney; Assistant to the Director: Seth Kalthwasser; Assistant Costume Designer: Mandi Johnson.
Cast: Sulia Rose Altenberg (The Daughter), Kirby Bennet (Frau Ill/Fourth Man), Gary Briggle (The Mayor), Heather Bunch (The Teacher), Charlotte Calvert (Second Man), Marissa Carr (The Policeman), Vinecia Coleman (The Pastor), Katherine Ferrand (Claire Zachanassian),Bryan Grosso (The Artist) Bradley Hildebrandt (Pedro/The Press), Katie Kaufmann (First Man/Mayor's Wife), Gabriel Murphy (Loby, the Second Blind Man), Chelsie Newhard (Third Man/The Press), Cameron Reeves (Rob/The Conductor), Mark Rhein (Anton Ill), Seth Russell (The Athlete), Carl Schoenborn (Bobby/The Truck Driver), Adan Varela (The Doctor), Allison Witham (Toby/The Son/The Station Master), Mohamed Yabdri (Koby, Second Blind Man)