BWW Reviews: Two Small Theater Companies Impress - nimbus theatre's Delightfully Bizarre GHOST SONATA and Candid Theatre Company's Compelling True-Crime HAUPTMANN
Readers of Broadway World Minneapolis are familiar with the big splashy Broadway tours that come through Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre and St. Paul's Ordway Center for the Arts, as well as what's happening at our own big theaters like the Guthrie. But my goal as a Broadway World contributor is to make you aware of the great work that some of the smaller companies around town are doing. Two great examples right now are nimbus theatre, which does consistently good work as well as hosts other small companies at their Northeast Minneapolis home, and Candid Theatre Company, which recently won an Ivey for their new play Dogwood. nimbus' production of August Strindberg's Ghost Sonata combines original music, ingenious set design, and video projections to enhance the deeply layered 100 year old play. Candid's production of the historical true-crime drama Hauptmann presents a compelling story with the barest of sets and costumes. Both are worth your time and deserve a bigger audience than the ones I was a part of. Keep reading for more details on both shows. Moral of the story: don't be afraid to venture off the beaten path and give a new theater a try. You might discover something pretty great.
Ghost Sonata, nimbus theater in Northeast Minneapolis
nimbus theatre's production of Swedish playwright August Strindberg's Ghost Sonata is delightfully bizarre. It's a surreal world full of not just ghosts but also vampires, mummies, murders, mysteries, and one insane dinner party. The only other Strindberg play I've seen is Miss Julie which, although dark and twisted, is incredibly realistic, so I was not quite prepared for the strangeness of this play written after what is known as Strindberg's "inferno crisis." But I found it fascinating, with many ideas and layers and complex characters to contemplate. I was fortunate enough to attend on a day when there was a post-show discussion, which helped me to make sense of what I had just seen. But even without that added benefit, Ghost Sonata is a wonderfully new and innovative production of a classic piece of theater, with lovely original music, ingenious set design, and a cast that jumps into the strangeness with both feet.
Ghost Sonata is one of Strindberg's chamber plays, a play with three acts that flows like a piece of music (especially when accompanied by original music played by a three-piece onstage orchestra). In the first act we meet an idealistic young student (Andrew Sass) who has just saved a bunch of people from a collapsed building. A wily old man (Charles Numrich) uses him in his plan to get inside a grand house. The old man seems to know and be connected to many of the residents in mysterious ways, especially the Colonel (David Tufford) and his crazy wife (Karen Bix). The student is fascinated by these rich people in this fine house, so he agrees to the plan. In the second act, the old man and the student have managed to get inside the house, and the old man confronts the residents and the servants over dinner as we learn of his twisted plan. In the third and final act, the student talks with the young lady of the house (Megan Dowd) and learns about the strange happenings. Her parents are crazy, she's terrified of the servants, and despairing of life in general. The student soon realizes that what's inside this house is not as beautiful and fine as it appears on the outside.
The whole thing reminded me of a warped and twisted version of Downton Abbey, where Mrs. Patmore is a vampire, Carson is angry and careless, Lady Grantham is a mummy, Lord Grantham is not who he says he is, Lady Mary is sick and frightened, and Matthew is the son of a lunatic who may be on his way there himself. If the ghost of a girl scout in the first act doesn't clue you in to what you're in for, the second act insane dinner party leaves no doubt that something is amiss. Bengtsson (Mark L. Mattison) is no Carson as he sloppily spoons soup into bowls and drops some strange pink goop on the plates in front of the guests, which some of them actually eat. And then, the transition between the second and third act, from the dining room to the flower room where the young lady spends her time, is unlike anything I've ever seen. It's quite thrilling and will blow your hair back, literally (set design by Zach Morgan, who also directs).
I apologize if I'm not making sense, but this is a difficult one to make sense of. I mean that in the best possible way, it's really quite fascinating and fun to watch. Themes of class tension, redemption, relationships, revenge, and being haunted by one's past all come into play in this strange Strindberg world. It was obvious listening to the creators talk about their work in the post-show discussion that a lot of time, thought, and effort went into creating this piece, including a new modern-day translation by Danielle Blackbird, original music by Charlie McCarron, and abstract video projections by Josh Cragun. All of these pieces come together quite beautifully in a bizarre and surreal sort of way. There's really no way to adequately describe it, you just have to see it for yourself. Ghost Sonata continues at nimbus theater through November 23.
Hauptman, Candid Theater Company at the People's Center Theater in the West Bank
The kidnapping of the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1932 was headline news across the country and caused a media sensation. Eighty years later, the "crime of the century" is still a fascinating story and a bit of an unsolved mystery. Last year the History Theatre produced a fantastic musical Baby Case about the kidnapping, investigation, and media frenzy. Playwright and screenwriter John Logan (see also the multi-Tony-winner Red) wrote a play about it from the point of view of the man accused, convicted, and executed for the crime, Bruno Richard Hauptmann. Candid Theater Company's current production presents a fascinating and compelling drama with the barest of sets and costumes and a cast full of new young talent.
The focus of Hauptmann is not Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh, whose child was stolen and murdered, but, as the title suggests, Hauptmann himself. He tells his story directly to the audience from his prison cell where he's awaiting execution. He narrates his story from his arrest two years after the crime, through the brutal interrogations, through the trial with resources and public opinion in the Lindberghs' favor, to his almost predetermined conviction. He never wavers in his insistence of his innocence, as the real Hauptmann never did. Someone needed to pay for the "crime of the century" to put the watchful nation at ease, and Hauptmann did. The possession of some of the ransom money, which he says he got from a friend, handwriting experts who testified to the similarity between his writing and the ransom notes, and wood experts who insisted that the wood from the ladder found at the scene of the crime matched wood in his attic was enough to convict him. History is undecided about whether or not Hauptmann was guilty of the crime, but this play leaves no doubt that he was the innocent victim of circumstance and the public and law enforcement's desperate need for a conviction.
Director Justin Kirkeberg tells the story efficiently with simple costumes, minimal sets (just a cot and a few chairs), and his seven-person cast, several of whom are new to the Twin Cities theater scene, with no a weak link among them. Aaron Henry plays the title character and rarely, if ever, leaves the stage as he guides the audience through the story. His Hauptmann is a sympathetic man, an average Joe caught up in a whirlwind, but who eventually shows his anger and frustration that no one believes him. The rest of the cast all play multiple characters, from nameless police and guards to the other personalities in the story. Jonathon Dull's Lindbergh is a strong and elegant man, desperate to find answers for his wife. As Mrs. Lindbergh, Kate Zehr is the picture of a grieving mother. Kevin Fanshaw plays four different witnesses, never getting up from the witness chair but managing to create four distinct personalities in a short period of time. Matt Saxe is the cruelly efficient prosecuting attorney, relentlessly badgering Hauptmann until he gets the answers he wants. Rounding out the cast is Elohim Peña as multiple characters including the judge, with a nice array of accents.
The American public has always been obsessed with true crime stories, and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping is one of its earliest obsessions. Hauptmann shows us the other side of the story, the possibly innocent man who was sacrificed to create a satisfying end to the story. Candid Theater Company's well done production of John Logan's compelling story continues through November 23 at the People's Center Theater on the U of M's West Bank campus (discount tickets available on Goldstar).
Photo credit: Mathieu Lindquist