Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Your orientation to Beldenville is the exhibit mounted in Open Eye's lobby. Conceived to resemble the stuffy exhibit cases and framed documents of a county historical society, it includes such artifacts as a vintage bottle of Beldenville Syrup; a large fabricated Sugar Troll figure; a 3-D diorama depicting Beldenville the abandoned mine, the highway bridge built above its entrance by the WPA, and other features of the area; faded news clippings; black and white photos of Beldenville citizens, such as the former curator of the Beldenville Museum, now a Dollar General store; andthe piece d 'resistancea large thigh bone, too large to be human, purported to be part of the remains of the Beldenville Troll. The exhibit is presented with all earnestness, and by the time I had given it a close going over I felt piqued to be submerged in this invented world.
Sass' stunning artistry hits us as soon as we take our seats, facing Open Eye Figure Theatre's tiny stage and staring directly into the stony mouth of the mine, with rail tracks coming forward, as if a train might suddenly lurch out and land in our laps. A couple of trees with withered leaves frame either side of the scene, with weeds sprouting out of the trampled ground, which is littered with debris from those foolhardy enough to bait the Troll, local youths rising up to a dare or seeking an unlikely spot to engage in unseemly behavior. The train tracks cross a shallow streambed before entering the mine itself, and atop the mine, the arched bridge rests on dusty brick trusses. It all has a transporting effect.
We hear the voices of a couple of youths atop the bridge, exchanging dares and taunting the Troll. Something drops into the streambed bellow, and they must venture down to retrieve it, going closer to the Troll's lair than they had bargained for, and it is their undoing. We meet the Troll in the person of Neal Skoy, a talented actor equally adept at physical clowning and expressing the slightest variations in feelings with his arresting eyes and boyish face. With him is a beat-up baby doll, which he cradles gently in his arms, and continues to treat with attentive tenderness. Rummaging through the litter on the ground, including some macabre items, he finds an old console radio, and as he sets it down, it begins to broadcast a series of voices telling tales and exhorting warnings about the Beldenville Troll.
As the Troll responds to these fragments of stories about himself, a narrative slowly emerges that brings to mind the Bat Boy: The Musical, but less arch, more fanciful. It includes the Troll joyfully riding on a sputtering motorbike, a garish appearance by the Sugar Troll which seems to mock the real deal, an encounter with blowsy saloon singer Rusty Pynes, a high school dance, and a girl who, like the troll, is made an outcast by the other youth and finds her way beside him. This leads to an unexpected bittersweet ending that lives up to the promise of the transporting setting.
The story is enacted by live actors Skoy, Chloé Bell, sweetly affecting as the girl, Max Mainwood and Kalen Keir, both hidden beneath masks and wigs; the disembodied voices coming from the radio; and puppets, including paper cut-outs that appear on backlit screens. The mix contributes to the feeling of a tall tale coming to life before our eyes, sometimes reaching the thin line between surrealism and reality. Bits of music also contribute to telling the story, in particular the clever use of the torch song "Town Without Pity."
Like most offerings at the Open Eye Figure Theatre, The Beldenville Troll is a small but brightly polished work. It runs just 80 minutes and starts slowly, but those who give in to its skewed vision and good-humored morbidity will be rewarded by a beautiful piece of work, a wonderful performance by Neal Skoy, and an affirmation that, in spite of terrible things going on, happiness is possible. Not only the cynical "fol de rol rol" happiness used to market sweet syrup, but the genuine happiness of a human connectioneven among trolls.
A note: though The Beldenville Troll has a storytelling format and employs puppets, it includes adult themes and may frighten young children.
The Beldenville Troll , through April 14, 2019, at Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $24.00 general admission, $22.00 for seniors and $15.00 for students. If not sold out, a limited number of "pay as able" tickets will be available at the door. For tickets and information go to openeyetheatre.org or call 612-874-6338.
Created and Directed by: Joel Sass; Set and Prop Design: Joel Sass; Light Design: Bill Healey; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Puppetry Design: Kalen Keir and the company; Costume Styling: Susan Haas; Scenic Artist: Michael Sommers; Dramaturg: Josef Evans; Technical Director: Brandon Sisneroz; Stage Manager: Brian Hirt.
Cast: Chloé Bell (Girl with Scissors, others), Kalen Keir (Rusty Pynes, others), Max Mainwood (Sugar Troll, others), Neal Skoy (The Troll). Voice Artists: Wendy Freshman, Sean Healey, Sam Landman, Michael Sommers, Ruby Sparrows, Tommy Uldrich and the Company.