Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mr. Lette, the central character in Marius von Mayenburg's insane farce, The Ugly One, has never given thought to his appearance in any waynot homely, not handsome, just a face. He has a beautiful wife and a good job as an engineer, and no reason to consider his visage. That changes when he is denied the opportunity to present the High Voltage B Connector, a breakthrough product he invented, at an important sales conference because, his boss informs him, he is unspeakably ugly. A face like his will never sell anything to anyone and will drive prospective customers out the door.
The boss. Scheffler, assumed Lette knew how ugly he is. After all, hasn't he always looked this way? When Lette asks his wife about it, she admits that he is ugly but didn't want to hurt his feelings by bringing it up. She got over it once she learned how good a heart he hasand to always focus her glance away from a direct look at his face.
Lette is devastated and angry that his hard work will go unrewarded because of his face. Instead, his assistant, a young man who is not a matinee idol but would be considered good looking, is given that spot. Making no guarantees, a nefarious plastic surgeon agrees to take on the huge challenge of rebuilding Lette's face. The result is astonishing! Lette's new face is so dazzlingly handsome that the assistant is dropped like a hot potato, restoring Lette to his rightful place at the conference. Moreover, he becomes a magnet for droves of women, and some men, complicating life for his faithful wife. When the doctor realizes there is a killing to be made by branding Lette's face (which he claims belongs to him, not Lette) and installing it, for a price, on all comers, Lette's life becomes unbearable.
Walking Shadow Theatre Company has been well occupied this past fall with their intriguing puzzle play Cabal, which continues to run. Thank goodness that hasn't kept this nimble company from mounting The Ugly One, which fits like a glove under the charming proscenium arch at Open Eye Figure Theatre. Maja Zade provides the English translation of von Mayenburg's play, which was written in German under the title Der Häßliche. In 1998, at the youthful age of 26, von Mayenburg had his first success with the play Fireface (Feuergesicht), and has churned out a raft of plays since. Not long after The Ugly One premiered in Munich in 2007, it was staged at the Guthrie, so this it not the first appearance of Lette's scarifying face in our fair cities.
Not that we actually see anything scarifying on stage. In fact, Sean Dillon, who plays Lette, has a perfectly good face, one that I would call nice, meant as a compliment. The twinkle in his eye and his affable demeanor make him pleasant to look at, but neither the word handsome nor the word homely come to mind. He's just an ordinary bloke, but Dillon manages to invoke a range of feelings about his appearanceoblivious at the onset, then horrified when he learns how others see him, then modestly pleased and gradually gaining a portion of vanity as his face change alters his fate. It is a great comic performance that, like all great comedy, draws upon our compassion along with our laughs.
The other cast members are equally adroit, each doubling up on roles. Julie Ann Nevill channels pure goodness as Lette's devoted wife, rattled when his new-found beauty changes the rules of their relationship. She can deliver a line like "Before I met you I never thought I'd end up with an ugly husband," sounding kind and supportive. She takes on a completely different persona as Lette's customer Fanny, a wealthy septuagenarian with a thriving libido.
Corey DiNardo is extremely funny as the nervous assistant, who sees in Lette's brutal ugliness an opportunity for his own self-advancement. DiNardo radically changes gears as Fanny's son, a slithery, simpering presence controlled by his mother's emasculating jibes. Edwin Strout is a droll delight as Scheffler, a boss who, shall we say, lacks people skills. Forever attending to a piece of fruit in need of peeling, Strout plays him as a dufus whose position of authority exceeds his acumen. Strout changes speeds as the doctor, effusively arrogant and excessively mercenary.
Amy Rummenie, Walking Shadow's co-artistic director, has staged The Ugly One as a non-stop romp, giddily bouncing from one absurd situation to the next, culling out the subversive humor by treating the whole business as if it were the most normal and natural of affairs. She stages scene transitions so that we never are confused as actors shift from one character to another, even when one bleeds into the next without any elapsed time.
The production uses a simple set designed by Sarah Brandner that makes use of well-conceived projections and lighting (by Tony Stoeri), along with keen use of sound (by Thomas Speltz) to alter the ambience of each scene. Kathy Kohl's cool costumes convey a sense of the absurd, off-kilter enough to underscore the notion that this all is taking place in a comedic neverland. The brisk seventy-minute one-act begins with a dreamy musical theme by Ravel, drawing us into an illusionary state of mind. Another piece by Ravel, in a pizzicato vein, provides the musical background for Lette's grueling plastic surgery.
Along with the robust laughs and shocking absurdities that The Ugly One dishes out, is its light cast on how much stock society places on outward appearances, and the lengths some go to in order to cosmetically improve their life chances. Recent online theatre discussions have featured the upbraiding of the producers of a current Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors for casting the lead role, Seymour, with a conventionally handsome actor. Seymour, they contest, is supposed to be a nebbish, not a swell-looking hunk. Are producers saying that it takes a well-chiseled face and body to sell tickets? If The Ugly One's Mr. Scheffler is the producer, the answer would be an unabashed "of course."
But von Mayenburg's tart writing, re-enforced by Rummenie's staging, gives the audience more credit than that, presenting The Ugly One as a farce that lampoons our obsession for skin-deep beauty, trusting their wise audiences to see the light along with the laughs. You don't have to have deep thoughts about The Ugly One to enjoy it, but the deep thoughts are there for the picking, at no extra charge.
The Ugly One, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, runs through February 16, 2020, at the Open Eye Figure Theatre, 506 East 24th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $38.00 real cost, to cover production expenses; $26.00 general admission; $24.00 for seniors; $15.00 for students, veterans, and active military personnel; limited number of economic accessibility tickets available for each performance, $10.00. For tickets and information, please visit www.walkingshadow.org.
Playwright: Marius von Mayenburg, as Der H?ßliche; Translation: Maja Zade; Director: Amy Rummenie; Assistant Director: John Heimbuch; Scenic Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Tony Stoeri; Sound Design: Thomas Speltz: Intimacy Director: Tom Ringberg; Production Manager: David Pisa; Technical Director: Trevor Muller-Hegel; Stage Manager: Brian Hirt.
Cast: Sean Dillon (Lette), Corey DiNardo (Karlman/Fanny's Son), Julie Ann Nevill (Fanny/Lette's Wife), Edwin Strout (Scheffler/Doctor).