Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The People's Violin
The show is conceived as a housing conference, and the audience its attendees. It is the kind of keynote speaker/break-out session gathering where non-profit and government agency folks discuss the issues and bemoan the lack of progresswhat might be referred to as "admiring the problem"while eating too much and getting too little sleep.
But this is no ordinary conference. This conference is led by a trio of zebras. Zendra (Hanna-Pepper Cunningham) and Zebdrix (Bruce A. Young) share duties as emcees and session facilitators. Zébra (Ms. Mosley) is the keynoter, a sexy songstress who discharges powerful facts and raises challenging questions between such numbers as Kurt Weil's "Surabaya Johnny" and Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam". Why zebras? Why not? But they do grab our attention in a disarming way, abetted by extremely inventive costumes designed by Nephelie Andonyadis.
Our zebra hosts cast an aura of surrealism over the proceedings, as if the stark, dispiriting facts about the insufficiency of housing for large segments of our community are too crazy to be real. Perhaps that makes it easier to hang with the ninety-minute long show and absorb a large dose of very real information that might otherwise be too much to take in, and lead to disengagement. In the context of this gambit, all this information, presented both as anecdotes and bullet-point facts, becomes a coherent narrative that turns the housing crisis into a story for which it is up to us to devise the end. That we are given an opportunity to imagine that end builds hope and a belief that individualsperhaps ourselvescan do something to build a more just future.
While the goal of The Most Beautiful Home... Maybe may be to discharge its audience resolved to affect change, it doesn't skirt away from looking frankly at the intransigence of the problem. It depicts the discouragement, the shame, the anger, and the utter fear that mark the lives of the unhoused and those who live day to day not knowing if their present housing will be there tomorrow. There is no attempt to gloss over the strong forces maintaining the status quo, many of which derive from the cumulative inertia of historical injustices. On a couple of occasions, the audience is divided into groups to facilitate engagement around different aspects of these issues.
Without question, The Most Beautiful Home...Maybe is an advocacy piece, but it is also very theatrical. The costumes contribute to that, as does the elaborate lighting, devised by Paul Whitaker, and Victor Zupanc's original music, which shares the stage with a wide range of songs from "Tap Your Troubles Away" to "The End of the World," as well as those mentioned above. With Joe Strachan pumping out the music with verve from a platform overlooking the action. Kelli Foster Warder has devised choreography to add zest to these numbers, and Andonyadis has designed a setting and props that complement her costumes to create a feeling of disorienting festivity. For example, the performance space, Springboard for the Arts' unadorned studio, is festooned with decorations hung from the rafters that name all forms of housing, from privately owned homes to NOAH (naturally occurring affordable housingyou will find out what that means) to public housing to tents.
Moreover, the three actors ensure that they deliver a theatrical experience, even as they make no effort to conceal its activist agenda. Mosley is beguiling as the chanteuse Zébra, purring when she aims to seduce, speaking in confidential whispers to reveal the dark underbelly of the housing crisis, rousing her energy to cheerleader level to send out ready-to-change-the-world messages, while her clarion singing voice conveys the nuance of each song. Mosley, who has had recurring roles on daytime soap operas (most recently "The Bold and the Beautiful") and done both film and television work, is a New York based actor, and it is a treat to catch her performance here.
As Zendra, Pepper-Cunningham exudes the anxious energy generated by the worsening state of housing. Bruce A. Young's Zebdrix conveys cynicism as an older hand, one who has seen this all before, and seen that talk of change is just thattalk. Then, out of nowhere, he stuns the audience with an extended piece as a man nearing the end of his days, terror-stricken by the loss of the house that has been his home for 60 years. Delivered with such veracity, it would be easy to believe Young, the actor, and not a character on stage, is melting down.
The play is presented in a large open space, with most of the performance on a central raised platform and the audience remaining on their feet for most of the 90-minute durationwith a welcome opportunity to spend about ten minutes seated roughly halfway through.
The Most Beautiful House...Maybe was developed over the course of three years, informed by a multitude of conversations with local and national policy makers, activists and individuals. It was created as a vehicle to go beyond the public policy arena where "practical" and "feasible" win out, to envision solutions that cut through the barriers and truly address the problems. At this it succeeds admirably. Being a supporter of the cause myself, I was won over at once. It may be more difficult to someone entering with an opposing view to feel the warmth and respond to the dynamism of the production. For those whose perspective is somewhere in the middle, the play certainly could contribute to forging a more definitive opinion.
After this world premiere, The Most Beautiful House ... Maybe will travel to Los Angeles and then to Syracuse, New York. As there are many references to local conditions in the play, one suspects that it will be modified to include place names, organizations and conditions in those other cities. It is also interesting that the play seen here, in a large Midwestern metropolitan area, will bring its message to a giant West Coast megapolis and a smaller Northeastern urban city, attesting to the prevalence of housing insecurity in communities of all sizes and regions.
The Most Beautiful Home ...Maybe, a Mixed Blood Theatre production, runs through November 7, 2021 at Springboard for the Arts, 262 University Avenue W., Saint Paul MN. Tickets are on a sliding scale, nor minimum with $25.00 recommended. For reservations and information, please visit mixedblood.com/ or call 612-338-6131.
Writers and Directors: ashley sparks and Mark Valdez; Set, Costume and Prop Design: Nephelie Andonyadis; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Media Design: Jake Pinholster; Composer: Victor Zupanc; Choreographer: Kelli Foster Warder; Sound Engineer: Scott Edwards; Assistant Media Design: Matt Soson; Props Artisan: Lois Rhomberg; Technical Director: Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli; Stage Manager: Emily Robinson; Producers: Jack Reuler and Jay Claire
Cast: Karla Mosley (Zébra), Hannah-Pepper-Cunningham (Zendra), Joe Strachan (musician), Bruce A. Young (Zebdrix).