Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A changeling is defined as a child either surreptitiously or unintentionally substituted for another. In folklore it is often the work of fairies or some other magical force. Sometimes the replacement child is witless, emotionally stunted, possesses demonic power, or in some other way brings havoc to its family. In Obolensky's concocted town of Threadsville, Otto Cragg disappeared over twenty years ago when he was a young boy. Searches for him were fruitless and his parentsHazel, renamed "Goat" by her husband, and Bob, renamed "Freshface" by his wifeare utterly changed by his absence, as is his sister, known by one and all as "Sister." For Goat, life has become an endless stream of ailments, disappointments, and miseries. Freshface flees the emptiness of his home with pipe dreams of Paradisewhich is the name of the insolvent betting parlor he operatesand a poorly concealed affair with Trixie, a perpetually inebriated floozy who inherited her late husband's fortune. Sister has become bitter, suspicious, and hurt that her presence in the home seems to amount to nothing in the face of her brother's absence.
Freshface has taken on a clerk, a ne'er-do-well young man called Sharp who is grateful for employment and spare living quarters behind Paradise and loyal to his benefactor, while hatching dreams of his owna plan he calls "A Better Life for Sharp." There are two other key characters, though not persons, in the play. One is Wind, the force of perpetual unpredictable change, able to bring both good weather and horrific destruction to Threadsville. The other is House, specifically the Craggs' house, fallen into disrepair since Otto has been gone, but nobly struggling to endure and provide whatever home-base and shelter from the elements it can afford its damaged family.
The whimsy of a wind that dances as it makes breathy conversation with a talking house places The Changelings in the arena of magical realism, as does the sudden return of Otto, now a grown man, who describes his capture by another family through an unseen portal in the grain fields outside Threadsville. Goat, thrilled that her son has come back, believes all that Otto says. Freshface is unsure at first, but when Otto appears to bring much needed good luck to Paradise, Freshface is convinced. Both Sister and Sharp are highly skeptical and worry that this man who calls himself Otto is conning his parents. As events progress, though, all of the charactersthe family, Sharp, Trixie, and even Houseare changed inwardly and in relation to one another by Otto's return. Only the wind, ever changing by its nature, remains unaffected. The question of whether he is the real Otto or a changeling becomes moot; what matters is the reality of change.
Kira Obolensky has written The Changelings with the spirit of a fable, a story that holds rich truths within its unlikely and patently fantastic trappings. Through the two acts we continue learning new things about each character, creating a sense of constant unfolding and discovery. Michelle Hensley's direction makes full use of the play's playful tone, while acknowledging the inner feelings of hurt and humiliation, the urge to regress and the drive to escape. Each person on stage has flaws, but we are made to accept them, flaws and all. By the tale's end, these characters have earned our affection and our wish for their changed lives to bring them happinessfor "A Better Life for Sharp" to lift them all.
The actors embrace this tale and create their own brand of magic, with every member of the talented cast giving a beautiful performance. Sha Cage again demonstrates her ability to transform herself into any character: as Goat, she dwells in a deep well of misery and self-pity until, with Otto's return, she becomes a beacon of joy, and then makes a powerful transformation in her regard for Trixie. We never doubt for a moment the truth of Cage's portrayal. Luverne Seifert is perfectly cast as Freshface, trying to overcome his loss with glad-handing and dreams of easy money, but with a tender heart clearly visible within. Ricardo Vazquez as Otto is a poster boy for hope and good will, his charismatic good looks radiating love for his re-unified family, even when it seems clear he has something else up his sleeve.
Kurt Kwan is both comical and touching as Sharp, allowing for a glimmer of innate wisdom to lurk within his simple demeanor, and he creates the voice of sagacity as House. Kimberly Richards is hilarious as Trixie, combining the humor in the script with broad physical comedy, and she plays the Wind with grace as it soars and twirls around the stage. Joy Dolo is becoming one of our most reliable young actresses, and she mines Sister's vein of suspicion and hurt with precision.
True to form, this Ten Thousand Things production has scant scenery, and no lighting effects, but Sonya Berlovitz's costumes are wonderfully imaginative, greatly inspiring our ability to imagine the town of Threadsville. Annie Enneking provides perfectly cast music and sound accompaniments, and is the voice of a radio that periodically comments upon the action by way of news bulletins, as well as what feels like an endless cooking program featuring recipes for plums.
To be fair, I can imagine some audience members may find the make believe elements of the play off-putting, the premise perhaps a bit twee. Those who prefer drama grounded in firm reality may not find The Changelings to their liking. Those who enjoy blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy, between grounded truth and permeable possibilities, and who can take pleasure in great storytelling enacted by a troupe of actors showering the work with their talent and their love will find, as I did, The Changelings to be a remarkably rewarding and uplifting work of theater.
The Changelings plays through June 5, 2016, at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $30.00, Pay what you can ($5.00 minimum), for those under 30. Free community performances on May 17, 18, 24 and June 1 at various times and locations. Reservations are required. For information and tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Writer: Kira Obolensky; Director: Michelle Hensley; Music, Sound and Radio: Annie Enneking; Costumes: Sonya Berlovitz; Sets: Irve Dell; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director: Emilie Whelan; Costume Assistant: Shannon Gauer; Production Intern: Mary Fiala.
Cast: Sha Cage (Hazel Cragg a.k.a Goat), Joy Dolo (Sister), Kurt Kwan (House, Sharp), Kimberly Richardson (Wind, Miss Edith Handkerchief, Trixie), Luverne Seifert (Bob Cragg a.k.a. Freshface), Ricardo Vazquez (Otto Cragg).