Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Guthrie Theater Does a Little Song and Dance
By Michelle Pett

Pirates of Penzance is Shipshape

O, it is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King! In fact, in the immortal words of Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge, it is "spectacular, spectacular" - which is also an apt description of the Guthrie Theater's o'er-the-top production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.

The Pirates of Penzance traces the story of Frederic, a young man accidentally apprenticed to a gang of orphan-loving pirates as a child. Frederic's indenture expires during his 21st birthday party; he stops the hoopla long enough to tell his corsair comrades that he's now duty bound to leave their employ and dedicate himself to their eradication. He takes up his cause and soon falls in love with Mabel, Major-General Stanley's youngest daughter; they pledge their troth. The Major-General tells the pirates a whopping lie to save his daughters from certain ravishment. The Pirate King convinces Frederic to return to him based on a technicality in his contract of indenture; Frederic leaves Mabel and returns to his life of piracy. He reveals the Major-General's lie to his buckos. The buccaneers vow revenge and all hell breaks loose until a surprise revelation ensures a happy ending.

Director Joe Dowling's production unfolds through highly choreographed song and dance routines that are big, big, BIG; the show has the look and feel of a touring Broadway production. Set and costume colors are bold to the extreme (the enormous pirate ship is bright orange; the Major-General's daughters are fluorescent butterflies). The terrific cast includes some new faces as well as the best vocal talent in the Twin Cities. The stand-out performance belongs to angel-voiced Jennifer Baldwin Peden as Mabel; she is the only actor in this large cast able to make the transition from a campy tone to true emotion. When she drops to the floor in grief upon Frederic's departure, she stops the show. Brian Sutherland's Pirate King is an appropriately addlepated peacock, while Dan Callaway's Frederic is an interesting combination of naïf and narcissist. Jan Neuberger's performance as the game, good-hearted but aurally-challenged Ruth (Frederic's nursemaid) also is a standout.

Choreographer David Bolger has substantial responsibility for the "Broadway" look of the show; in both big and small "numbers", his revelation of character through movement is tremendous. Kudos also belong to Musical Director Andrew Cooke, who has harnessed a group of top-notch voices and turned them into a knockout ensemble.

Dowling has created a crowd-pleaser with Pirates; it is vibrant, clever and brisk almost to point of breathlessness. There is a vague whiff of Disney to this colossal production, though, with its slick and superficial tone. Peden's performance was the compass pointing the way out of this arch and campy place; if other performances had scratched more than their entertaining surface, Pirates would have really shivered me timbers.

The Pirates of Penzance May 14 - June 13, 2004. Tuesday - Sunday, evenings & selected matinees; performance times vary. Call the box office for schedule. Tickets $18 - $53, depending on performance. Guthrie Theater, 725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224 or 877-44-STAGE. Online at

Forbidden Christmas is a Real Gift

Let's get something straight right up front: just because Rezo Gabriadze's Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and the Patient stars Mikhail Baryshnikov doesn't make it a ballet or the stage version of Sex and the City. Instead, it is a haunting and highly physical absurdist fantasy wrapped up in the garb of figurative (puppet) theatre. Commissioned by the Guthrie Theater for its WorldStage Series, Forbidden Christmas premiered at the Guthrie Lab May 11th prior to beginning its national/international tour.

Set in the Soviet Republic of Georgia in the waning days of Stalin's reign, Forbidden Christmas is a buddy story tracing the relationship between Chito (Baryshnikov), a loveable madman with an imaginary car, and The Doctor (Jon DeVries), the last physician on Earth who makes house calls. On a cold and snowy (forbidden) Christmas Eve, Chito convinces the worn-out Doctor to "drive" with him to treat a sick girl. They get lost in a blizzard, attacked by dogs, you name it - all terrific opportunities for the fledgling buddies to bicker, share information and develop a mutual understanding. Accidentally separated from Chito, the Doctor finds himself at his dead ex-wife's grave, finally expressing his guilt over leaving her for another woman.

Writer/Director Gabriadze, an internationally acclaimed theater and film artist, is best known in the U.S. for his marionette piece, Battle of Stalingrad. In Forbidden Christmas, Gabriadze mixes actor-dancers with puppets and other inanimate objects to flesh out his story of love and madness. In his theatrical world, three weathered timbers rotating like a giant rotisserie are ocean waves; the moon and sun move across the sky via fishing pole; a pint-sized forest of raffia trees is a snow-covered city; an attacking dog is a tin sheet painted with an expressionistic image of a leaping canine. Anything can happen here: Chito can dance with electrical power lines; the Doctor can share a tango with his dead wife, reliving the only bliss in their 30 year marriage; a car's window crank, when applied to a lapel and twirled just right, can start the engine of an imaginary car.

Forbidden Christmas requires patience because it unfolds slowly; not a word is spoken in the first half-hour of its 100 minute performance. Much of the story is told through the shorthand of figurative images and movement, tapping our emotions in a different way than text-based work does. There is terrific humor in the details of this piece, but the Doctor's pathos really stands out; the story of his doomed marriage, told through a tango, brought me to tears. If you stripped Forbidden Christmas of its lighting design and soundscape, it could be performed on a street corner and retain its emotional impact; its low-tech magic has the feel of the street. It's a simple story, told simply, by a master of his craft.

Forbidden Christmas or The Doctor and The Patient on tour May - December 2004. Upcoming cities include: Charleston, SC, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Full tour schedule and ticketing links available at

Photos: Michal Daniel

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

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