Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Understood begins with a thirtysomething married couple, Chris (Sasha Andreev) and Julie (Adelin Phelps), bemoaning the terrible things they see happening in our country since the last presidential election (the winner of that election, wisely, is never mentioned by name). They argue whether it is possible to even to understand how people could have voted for "him," and Chris's theory that "people by and large are idiots" doesn't really end their debate. They should try to talk to someone who voted for "him" to find out how they could, but how would one even talk to people like that? Do they even know anyone who voted for "him? Chris says no, Julie says nobut wait, there is Nancy at work, but Julie can't stand her and definitely does not want to talk to her. It becomes clear that while Chris and Julie hold similar political and social views, they are not very good at communicating with one another, and their discussion quickly descends into bickering, shouting over one another while neither is listening to a thingunless you count the music Chris is listening to on his headphones during the entire exchange.
Next scene, Julie dashes in, distraught, as she tells Chris that their dog Jack has disappearednot run away, but disappeared. The gate in their fenced in yard is locked, so it could not have accidentally swung open and allowed Jack to wander. Yet, he is gone. Julie's distress over Jack's disappearance is worsened by Chris' seeming lack of concern, as if he suspects Julie is mistaken about the dog's absence, and that Jack is probably hiding in some corner of the yard she failed to check. As before, their communication descends into discord. The fact is, there seems to be as much of a crevice in understanding between these two life partners as between blue state and red state loyalists.
For reasons that fully make sense in the context of the play, Chris and Julie each end up having extended conversations with someone with that red-state orientation, someone they would not have expected to be able to talk with, and yet who they come to realize has experienced pains, suffered losses, and carries a store of unfulfilled dreams just like them. We are shuttled quickly back and forth between Chris's conversation with Rachel (also played by Phelps) and Julie's conversation with Josh (Andreev again), interspersed with scenes that mark the stages of Chris and Julie's relationship from their first meeting, aglow with potential and communicate everything they need to without using words, up to the point when dissonance overshadows the love that brought them together.
Thus, Understood shows us how communication can blossom, even between people worlds apart in their views on life, and how communication can wither between people who seem to share a common destiny. Being understood is not about agreeing. It is about listening, and through listening, seeing the humanity in the other. The ending, which returns to the mystery of Jack's disappearance, provides a summarizing canopy over everything this play has to tell us about placing others in boxes that dictate howor even ifwe will communicate with them.
Running about 100 minutes without intermission, Understood comprises many short scenes, each ending in a complete black out, with the next abruptly starting after a surprisingly brief pause for the actors to take their marks. The brisk delivery of the three strands that compose this story is kept moving by director Tyler Michael (Trademark's founder and Artistic Director) with the dexterity of a Las Vegas card dealer, laying out a hand, giving the player just enough time to read it before moving on to the next. We remain always fixed on what will happen and what will be said next, drawn in to listen as these characters drawn each other in. Karin Olson's subtly shifting lighting and Katherine Horowitz's sound design provide occasional ambient background noises, just enough to create a context in which to place these essential conversations.
Adelin Phelps, as Julie and Rachel, and Sasha Andreev, as Chris and Josh, are glorious in these roles. When they are together as Julie and Chris, Phelps and Andreev have a sparkling chemistry that make their attraction and growing relationship not only believable, but inevitable. When anger and disappointment places a growing chasm between them, that spark does not fade; they continue to emit emotional fireworks, only now directed toward the failure of their love to guarantee smooth sailing. As Josh, a person with a totally different biography than Chris, Andreev uses different posture, different ways of forming expressions on his face, and alterations in his voice to persuasively be a different man. Phelps' transition to Rachel is more subtle, as growing trust in Chris allows her to unleash that world of pain she has lived through.
In a promotional YouTube video on the Trademark Theater website, director Tyler Michaels declares that no other actors but Adelin Phelps and Sasha Andreev could play these roles. I totally support Michael's feeling that his cast is phenomenal and a gift to him in bringing Understood to life. However, I strongly disagree that no other actors could play these roles. I believe other actors not only can but must play these roles, for Mr. Mills' play is so powerful, so poignant, so accessible, and most importantly, so relevant to our shattered national civic life, that it should be done by regional theaters everywhere. Heck, it should be sent out on Netflix, where it could really reach the massesthough the immediacy of live theater is always (in my book) best.
We in the Twin Cities are privileged to have this amazing play come to life in our theatergoing laps, but let us hope this is just the first moment in the far-reaching life of Understood. Don't let this pass you by.
Understood, through October 28, 2018, by Trademark Theater, at Soma Studios, 79 13th Avenue N.E, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $30.00; students with ID - $15.00. For information and tickets, visit www.trademarktheater.org.
Playwright: Tyler Mills; Director: Tyler Michael; Assistant Director: Sophie Peyton; Set Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Lisa Smith.
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Chris/Josh), Adelin Phelps (Julie/Rachel).