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BWW Reviews: Park Square Theatre is Currently Presenting Two Small Gems on its Two Stages - SHOOTING STAR and THE OTHER PLACE

I don't know if you've noticed, but there's something exciting going on in downtown St. Paul. In what's usually regarded as the sleepier of the Twin Cities, Park Square Theatre has recently opened a second stage in the Historic Hamm Building on lovely 7th Place. This extra space has allowed them to do some great things in the last few months, including producing regional premieres, partnering with local theater companies (look for shows by Sandbox Theatre, Theatre Pro Rata, and Girl Friday Productions this spring and summer), an increased focus on diversity, and continuing their commitment to students. They currently have three fantastic shows playing on the two stages, including student matinees of an effectively condensed Romeo and Juliet. But for us grown-ups, the two stages offer two very different but excellent choices: the bittersweet comedy Shooting Star on the Proscenium Stage, and the emotional drama The Other Place on the new Boss Stage. Read on to make your choice, but hurry, both shows close on April 19.

Shooting Star, Proscenium Stage

A chance meeting with an ex-lover at a snowed-in airport, the opportunity to say all the things you couldn't say when things ended 25 years ago. Such is the premise of Steven Dietz's play Shooting Star, a two-hander. When the two hands are Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen, with a premise as full of promise as this one is, you know you're in for a treat. And a treat this is - a funny, engaging, and bittersweet play that leaves you with a wistful feeling and a pleasant ache in the heart where long-ago memories are held.

It's 2006, and Elena and Reed meet at an airport in Canada in the middle of what could be the "blizzard of the century," never mind that the century is only a few years old. We learn from asides by both characters that they immediately recognize each other from a pretty serious relationship that ended 2 years ago, during the free-love '70s. Turns out love is not so free, as these two have definitely carry around some leftover baggage through the intervening years. Elena is still a bit of a free spirit, but could never find anyone better than Reed, who's now a conservative businessman with a difficult relationship with his wife and daughter. With both of their flights delayed and nowhere to go, the two are unable to avoid each other, and engage in some awkward small talk that leads to something deeper as the barriers of time come down. A trip to the airport bar means things get even more real, and Reed and Elena realize they still have a connection. But is it something worth pursing after fate has brought them together again, or is it something that's better left in the past?

Shooting Star is one of those real and messy love stories, perfectly encapsulating an intense and intimate experience between two people that may or may not result in "happily ever after," but is meaningful and true nonetheless (see also Once). Steven Dietz's clever choice to give both characters multiple asides in which they speak directly to the audience in a conversational way gives us insights into their thoughts, making us feel like confidantes and drawing us right into the story. Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen use the sharp writing to create two characters that feel very real; Elena and Reed are both flawed and very human. Mark and Sally are both incredibly natural on stage and have a beautiful chemistry that goes from prickly to familiar, bitter to loving. They're given a fantastic playground in Kit Mayer's set that is the perfect model of a cold, linear airport, familiar to travelers everywhere.

Shooting Star is a funny, tender, bittersweet gem of a play about closure, connection, and coming to terms with the past. It's a comedy with depth and heart.

The Other Place, Boss Stage

The Other Place is the name of the play now playing in Park Square Theatre's "other place," the new Andy Boss thrust stage that opened just last fall. Even though it still smells like new construction, it already feels like a solid and necessary part of Park Square's programming. It allows room for plays like this, a short, compact, and impactful story of a woman in crisis and the people that love her.

Juliana is a top neuroscientist who has discovered a breakthrough drug that she is promoting to doctors around the world. While lecturing at a conference in St. Thomas, she has what she calls an "episode." She assumes that it's brain cancer because of a family history, but perhaps it's something different and even more scary. She's convinced her husband is cheating on her and filing for a divorce, even though he appears nothing but supportive. Something isn't quite right about her relationship with her daughter, who ran away years ago. All of this unfolds almost in a stream of consciousness sort of way, as we move around in time, place, memory, and possible hallucinations. The plot is like a puzzle, with pieces falling into place until we finally get the whole picture of what's going on with Juliana and what happened to her daughter. It's almost like we're inside Juliana's head as she struggles to make sense of a life she no longer recognizes.

The story is brought to life on the sparse and breezy set through strong and believable performances by the four-person cast. Linda Kelsey inhabits the character of Juliana as someone who varies between flustered and in control, uncertain and confident, belligerent and loving. James A. Williams is her supportive but frustrated husband. Joy Dolo smoothly transitions between several women in Juliana's life - willful teenage daughter, exasperated adult daughter, concerned therapist, and annoyed woman she encounters. Matt Wall rounds out the cast as Juliana's estranged son-in-law and several other characters. Juliana's interactions with these minor characters reflect her declining state of mind.

At under 90 minutes, The Other Place is cleverly and smartly written by playwright Sharr White, with language and interactions efficiently used to convey emotion and tell the story of this once strong and now lost woman. The ending is achingly beautiful, as Juliana comes to a sort of peace with the state of her life, reflected in lovely video projections (by Kristin Ellert, who also designed the set). It's moving, poignant, funny, devastating, and hopeful.

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From This Author - Jill Schafer