Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The irony in the title lies in the swift transition from the opening scene's joyful depiction of people of all ages and walks of life dining, drinking, conversing and dancing at the Kafé Heaven to the living hell depicted throughout the remainder of the play, set in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war that raged from 1992 to 1995. Bosniaks (who are Muslim), Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats fought one another for what each faction believed to be an existential hold on the homeland they had shared for centuries, resurrecting hatreds dating back four hundred years to the wars between the Austrian and Ottoman empires for control of southeastern Europe.
After a welcome from Chvala, in guise of the proprietor of Kafé Heaven, we are propelled into the maelstrom of the war where Peter Adamson, an American freelance photo journalist, is on the verge of going home after losing faith in his belief that documenting the horrors taking place will stir humane intervention from the United States and other nations. Peter is lured by one last shot at still making a difference, offered by Faruk who will guide Peter to an incriminating photo subject in exchange for Peter's help finding his wife Almira. Almira was thought to have fled to safety when enemy soldiers massacred the Muslims. On their perilous journey, Peter and Faruk encounter dangerous groups of men, empowered by guns and the belief that their cause justifiesno, demandswiping out former neighbors with cruelty and abandon.
They also meet Lejla who, with her sister, is leading their blind father to safety. Unwilling to abandon the defenseless sisters and old man, Peter allows them to travel with him and Farukagainst the latter's judgement. Peter at times speaks directly to the audience, confessing his own flaws, questioning his motivations, while struggling during each encounter with deadly force to maintain a steady hand as well as his honor. The other characters reveal different aspects of suffering and ways of coping with conditions none of them imagined could so inflame their beautiful country.
Heaven veers between the narrative of Peter and his band, each searching for some form of deliverance, and depictions of the war all around them, brutal views of battles, mass-murders, hunger and want, presented through Chvala's compelling choreography, the stirring score that blends folkloric motifs with the bracing clash of men at their worst, intensified by Marcus Dilliard's dramatic lighting and sharply realized sound design by Cody Anderson and sound effects by Sean Healy. From a creative standpoint, we are watching truly beautiful artistry, combining the elements of stagecraft with élan. At the same time, we feel the deeply tragic consequence of these actions, and the futility of war as a means of solving conflicts and making life better. The work leaves us uplifted, by its sheer grace, beauty and insight, and crushed by the harsh realities of our species' capacity for cruelty masquerading as righteousness.
Riley McNutt gives a compelling performance as Peter Adamson, struggling to be honest with himself while holding out hope of doing something to make things better. He is given several songs, delivered with a heartfelt voice. As Faruk, Eric Webster (a holdover from the 2011 production) creates a sharp image of a man who is good at heart, but willing to do or say what he must to keep what is most precious to him. Jessica Staples conveys Lejla's conflicted desires with both strength and tenderness, a desire to seek safe refuge and a desire to find a life where happy dreams, including love, can blossom. Lara Trujillo is riveting as Almira, a survivor who endures unrelenting loss.
When you arrive, take your seat early to enjoy and be immersed in the atmosphere of the Kafé Heaven, as the musicians and dancers create a mood that captures both the culture and happiness of Bosnia at peace. Vocalist Natalie Nowytski has a beautifully tuned voice that communicates rich meanings even with lyrics in a language unknown to us. Other standouts among the excellent cast include Mary Gantenbein as Kimeta, an aging woman who cannot understand how the children she helped care for in her village are now her enemies, Nicolas Sullivan as Darko, a particularly sadistic enemy officer, Peter Coburn as the authoritative Radoslav, and Kevin Dustrude as Saa, who shows hints of uncertainty beneath his soldierly bravado. All of these last named actors and the rest of the cast play multiple roles throughout the play and join in the ensemble for the dance pieces, gliding from character to character, scene to scene, with seamless grace.
Along with astonishing choreography, Chvala shows a steady hand with the book scenes and with transitions, giving the entire work a sense of constant motion, and the fluidity of a dream, albeit an uneasy one. The characters speak in a number of languages (with supertitles projected to translate all into English), and the difficulty they often have understanding each other becomes emblematic of the difficulties that turn neighbors against one another. Poling's score is beautifully played, led by music director Jake Andres; in several scenes, actors pick up instruments to add enriching tones and bring the music closer to the action.
Cindy Forsgren's wardrobe of atmospheric costumes depict the folk-styles of rural Bosnia, the Euro-sophisticated look of urban life before the war, and the varying uniforms of different factions in the warsome quite official looking, others makeshift and grungy. Robin McIntyre's set provides just enough realistic suggestion of buildings that have stood for centuries, now beginning to crumble. Videos created by Steve Campbell provide additional backdrop glimpses of the village life, the pastoral landscape, and the terror wrought by war.
Heaven has a long running time, two hours and 45 minutes, but every moment matters, giving testimony to the joy that is possible, underscoring the hopefulness of the show's title, and the depths of destruction and cruelty that are also possible. One would like to believe that the choice is within us, and that we can learn to choose joy over destruction, love over hate. The show lays it all out, and we can become numb to the horrors or activated to make heaven a reality, at least to move ourselves in that direction. Heaven is powerful, beautifully wrought, unforgettable theater that, like the war photographer Peter Adamson, aims to make a difference by passing its insights, grace. passions and courage on to us.
Heaven, a Flying Foot Forum production, through June 23, 2019, at Park Square Theatre, Proscenium Stage, 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - 60.00; under 30 discounted seats, $21.00; students (18 or younger and college students with ID), $16.00; seniors (62+) $5.00 discount; military, $10.00 discount. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or visit parksquaretheatre.org.
Created, Written and Composed by Joe Chvala and Chan Poling; Director and Choreographer: Joe Chvala; Music created by: Chan Poling, Joe Chvala, Victor Zupanc and Natalie Nowytski; Music Director: Jake Endres; Set Design: Robin McIntyre; Costume Design: Cindy Forsgren; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Video Design: Steve Campbell; Sound Design: Cody Anderson; Sound Effects: Sean Healy; Properties Design: Kirby Moore; Language and Culture Consultant: Stela O'Center; Stage Manager: Rachel Lantow; Assistant Stage Manager: Paran Kashani, Assistant Director: Emma Lai.
Cast: Joe Chvala (Kafé Heaven Proprietor), Pete Colburn (Radoslav), Ariel Donahue (Jasna), Kevin Dustrude (Saa), Mary Gantenbein (Kimeta), Christian LaBissoniere (Mike Grachenko), Cooper Lajeunesse (Kafé Hell Proprietor), Riley McNutt (Peter Adamson), Natalie Nowytski (Singer at Kafé Heaven), Charles Robinson (Niko), Jessica Staples (Lejla), Nicolas Sullivan (Darko), Lara Trujillo (Almira), Eric Webster (Faruk), Joe Weissman (Edin),
Ensemble: Jeremy Bensussan, Jan Campbell, Michelle de Joya, Kevin Dustrude, Karla Grotting, Liam Hage, Christian Labissoniere, Helena Magalhães, Charles Robinson, Molly Kay Stoltz, Nicolas Sullivan, Joe Weismann, Mabel Weismann.