Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
105 Proof, or, the Killing of Mack "The Silencer" Klein
In years past, TLA produced unique takes on fairy tales, or stories drawn from folklore (as well as memory plays). Lately, though, they have been experimenting with "historical" narratives. I use scare quotes advisedly, because artistic director Diogo Lopes is less interested in documented history than in history as filtered through popular culturein this case, the Cagney/Bogart mobster flicks of the 1930s, with a dollop here and there of late '40s noir films.
In 105, we're transported to Prohibition Era Illinois to tell a dark tale about ambition, betrayal, and the evolution of evil. The characters we meet are all clichés (in a good way). There's the gravel-voiced guy whose face never moves and the creepy, wildly smiling trigger-happy guy (Derek Lee Miller) who slaps you on the back and asks how your family's doing, a second before he shoots down the wise guy in the aisle who didn't pay up on time. There's even a menacing moll (Emily Dussault) who stands with one foot angled out to show off her Barbara Stanywick gams, and moans out a steamy torch song about wanting to die easy (that would be one of the noir touches).
The telling is done by the grim and hardened John Anderson (Eric Marinus, and Nick Wolf as Young John). Anderson tells us that he is one of the very few surviving members of Chicago mobster Mack "The Silencer" Klein's gang. He then takes us back to rural Versailles, Illinois, to the house in which he grew up, spending his days back then kicking around with his kid brother (Nick Saxton) and a clingy neighborhood kid (Allison Witham), poring over newspaper spreads of gory gangland killings. The family barely scrapes by on the meager profits of their small grocery store. But mom (Amber Bjork), who runs the place on her own (Dad's "departed," in the sense of being either dead or just gone), is a warm-hearted, neighborly sort. She extends credit to a needy neighbor, and is patience itself when the lonely town proselytizer comes into the store, pretending to need something so she can babble away.
The trouble starts when Grandpa spills to John that the moonshine he makes out back for private use would probably bring $3 a bottle on the market. Of course, "You can't sell it," though. Being young and ambitious, and reckless and resentful that he and his family are have-nots when others have more, he goes for it. He barters two cartons to an old booze-craving couple nearby and thinks he can just haul the stuff in the back of his car and drive it over. Of course, he's immediately caught and locked up by the good country sheriff. Mom bails him out and gives him a scolding, but the only lesson John takes from the incident is "Don't get caught." One thing follows another, and pretty soon he gets greedy and finds his way to Mack's Chicago headquarters, where he insinuates himself with Jimmy and the rest of the gang.
Like other TLA productions, 105 is a "devised" work, jointly created by director Diego Lopes and his cast of eight gifted actors. It feels like it would be violating the spirit of TLA to single out any one of the performer praise, so I'll just say that Bjork, Bunch, Dussault, Marinus, Miller, Saxton, Witham, and Wolf are superb. The stage remains bare, but master lighting designer Barry Browning works with the actors to create several stunning portraits. As a mother kneels down and draws up her child's bullet-ridden body (Pieta-like), he suddenly saturates the stage with the brightest red imaginable to give us the sense of freshly spilt blood and the raw horror of the gangster killings. Browning uses dusky browns and blues to recreate the ominous feeling of a smokey Chicago speak-easy, where a hood could pull a gun out of his coat if you so much as glanced at the wrong dame. A Twin Cities treasure, Browning is a great artist at the top of his form.
While The play mixes cinematic styles I was a little puzzled by Lopes' program note, that he "wanted to explore a genre, popular in movies, but rarely seen in theaterthe action thriller." To me, "action thriller" conjures a superhero or Tom Cruise movie, with car chases and dangerous stunts. Perhaps Lopes is suggesting that the Cagney/Bogart crime movies are continuous with these later movies, but I tend to think of the gangster movies primarily as morality dramas replete with rigid polarities of good and evilusually honest cops triumphing over murderous bullies. 105 reproduces those polarities in the good county sheriff and the swaggering killer, Jimmy, Mack's second-in-command. But it also traces the process by which basically decent folk become implicated in evil. John doesn't start off wanting to kill people, and he doesn't make a conscious decision to become a criminal. He starts up a small-time bootlegging business in part because he wants to help pay off family debts and give his mom and brother a better life. Nothing pleases him so much as giving mom a brand new dress or buying his kid brother a camera.
But expediency is the devil's best friend. After spending a few seasons working as a muscle man for Mack's extortion racket, John's moral perception has become brutalized. He finds himself rationalizing horrific acts and callously dismissing the pain he causes to his family by his absence. I think that the point that's being made is that it all happens so gradually. You don't actually see your heart turning into stone. A merely mildly discontented fellow like John sees a chance to make a killing and starts thinking that maybe he could bend the rules just this once. But when he finds that he can get away with it, he takes matters a little further, and so on and again. Until nearly the end of the show, John thinks that he can quit and turn things aroundgo back to being his mother's son, his brother's brother, and granddad's best little buddy. But by the time the old man finishes his confession and tells us that death haunts him, we understand that young John is long gone. The fellow that we see before us? At best, he's a cipher.
Transatlantic Love Affair's 105 Proof, or, the Killing of Mack "The Silencer" Klein, by Diogo Lopes, is being performed through November 20, 2016, at Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55403. To order tickets or for further information, visit www.illusiontheater.org or call the box office at 612-339-4944.
Directed by Diogo Lopes