Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Brothers Paranormal
Theater Mu / Penumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Shul, Marjorie Prime and Velvet Swing

James Craven, Regina Marie Williams,
Sherwin Resurreccion, and Kurt Kwan

Photo by Allen Weeks
As I am not generally a fan of ghost stories, I was unsure if The Brothers Paranormal, which recently opened in the first co-production of Theater Mu and Penumbra Theatre, would be my cup of tea. Turns out it is, largely because it is about a lot more than just scaring the pants off the audience—though it does provide some pretty good frights, with superb light and sound designs by Karin Olson and Scott Edwards, respectively. But the play has far more to say about facing loss, the hold that our cultural past has over us, and taking responsibility for moving on with our lives, than anything as simple as howling spirits.

The Brothers Paranormal is by Prince Gomolvilas, a Thai-American playwright born in the United States to Thai-born parents, as is Max, the core character in his play. Max has moved from California back to his Midwestern home city to care for his mother, who suffers from severe depression, and his older brother Vis, who grew up in Thailand before coming to America with his parents, and became an alcoholic until Max returned to help him get sober. Max clearly feels some resentment about giving up his cool West Coast American life to deal with the old-world issues raised by his mother and by Vis, but he knows what his duties are as a son and brother.

To earn a living while he plays caretaker to is family, Max devises a ghost-hunting business with his brother. It seems there has been an increase in reports of Asian ghosts troubling the lives of non-Asian Americans, and who better to dispel an Asian ghost than an Asian ghost hunter. It matters little to Max that he doesn't believe in ghosts. He is a glib talker and can whip up a sales line to win clients. His partner in the scheme is Vis, who does believe in ghosts and has some kind of hand held contraption that supposedly can detect haunted ectoplasm. Max orders Vis to let him do all the talking ("I'm good with people.") and Vis can handle the equipment, which Max assumes to be bogus.

However, it takes six months for Max to land his first customers: Delia and Felix, an African-American couple from New Orleans who relocated two years ago after losing their home and most of their possessions in Hurricane Katrina. Delia has been increasingly spooked by what she is certain is a ghost in the form of an Asian woman, to the point of being terrified. Felix is terrified as well, not by the idea of a ghost but by the idea that Delia may be suffering from the same mental illness that led her mother to suicide. He begs Max to prove there is a ghost, as he prefers that prospect to the prospect that his wife is dangerously ill. Max begins to realize that he has gotten himself in way over his head.

This premise is interesting enough, but as the play unspools, we find out more about all of these characters, including the pain of having their lives disrupted—by immigration into a strange culture, by forced evacuation due to natural disaster, or by the chains of duty to family. We find out that these characters may not be what they seem, and that discerning reality from illusion is not always a clear-cut task. Gomolvilas has devised a pleasingly twisty plot that keeps us engrossed and never tips its hand, and leads to a satisfying, genuinely frightening climax. In the final scene, a coda of sorts that seems intended to bring a ray of light into lives that must go on after immense loss, the playwright manages to produce a satisfying conclusion bordering on hopefulness.

Lou Bellamy, Penumbra's founder and artistic director emeritus, directs The Brothers Paranormal as if it is a straight-out drama enfolding in two families, one suffering from the impending loss of their ancient heritage, another with rootlessness among strangers. For all the grit in the play, Bellamy knows to mine the comedy, which is laced generously throughout, balancing the laughs, gasps, tenderness, and moments of insight within this rich text.

Sherwin Resurreccion, seen in in many Theater Mu productions as well as at History Theatre, Mixed Blood, The Guthrie and others, plays Max as a somewhat callow young man with little interest in the way of life wrenched from his parents and brother when they left Thailand, and no qualms about a business plan that is based on pulling off a scam. The course of events in the play evoke changes in Max, adding depth and maturity that is well captured in Resurreccion's performance.

Regina Marie Williams is one of the Twin Cities' most accomplished actors and creates a vivid, wholly believable portrait of the frenzied Delia, whose only solace comes from the adoring love of her husband. As that husband Felix, James Craven, a veteran of numerous Penumbra productions, makes a welcome return, utterly moving in his devotion to Delia, and in his courage when faced with an ultimate reckoning. I cannot recall that these two actors have played together before, but they certainly have a chemistry as these two characters that evokes both the spark still in their marriage and the long road they have travelled.

Kurt Kwan (The Great Leap, Guthrie) plays Vis as good-natured and a bit dim, but also devoted to his younger brother, whose life-saving interventions he acknowledges, and his mother. His awkwardness with American culture may be somewhat exaggerated, after living so many years in the States, even if his childhood was in Thailand, but there is also a very charming element to his character. As Max and Vis' mother, Leslie Ishii, new to Twin Cities stages, follows a long line of parents devised by writers to be the conscience of tradition for children who treat their cultural heritage like past-expiration date sausage, with a winning blend of sweetness and crankiness. Michelle de Joya (The Fix, Minnesota Opera; The Wolves, Jungle Theater) completes the cast, making a vivid impression in a non-speaking role.

Theatre Mu has a history of co-producing with other theater companies in the Twin Cities, among them Park Square, Mixed Blood, Steppingstone Theater for Youth Development, and The Guthrie, but this is the first time our region's premiere theater focused on the African-American experience and premiere theater addressing the Asian and Asian American lives have brought their creative resources together, and the result is an absolute victory. It is well known that collaboration is not easy, but this production of The Brothers Paranormal demonstrates what can happen when it is done right. Moreover, it is a well-crafted, highly original play that deserves to be seen for its own merits. Call it a win-win all around.

The Brothers Paranormal , through May 26, 2019, in a co-production of Theater Mu and Penumbra Theatre, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are Adults -$40.00, Seniors 62+ $35.00, Students with valid ID - $15.00, one ticket per ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to

Playwright: Prince Gomolvilas; Director: Lou Bellamy; Scenic Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Scott Edwards; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Saymoukda Vongsay; Dialect Coach: Ruth Coughlin Lenkowski; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Director: Sun Mee Chomet; Assistant Dramaturg: Matthew Boerst; Assistant Stage Manager: Tierra Anderson; Second Assistant Stage Manager: Em Friedman.

Cast: James Craven (Felix), Michelle De Joya (Jai), Leslie Ishi (Tasanee), Kurt Kwan (Visarut), Sherwin Resurreccion (Max), Regina Marie Williams (Delia).