Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
These lofty ambitions have resulted in a bounty of powerful, vibrant work over the past 25 years, as well as a long stream of dialogue around challenging issues. PHT was in the process of finalizing its 2017 mainstage season when the 2016 U.S. presidential elections sent shockwaves through the community, not only over who won and who lost, but over the depth and breadth of the chasm dividing American society. Other plans were set aside as PHT decided for its first 2017 mainstage production to commission new work to address this growing polarization. The result is The Great Divide, comprising five ten-minute plays by five Twin Cities-based playwrights, each with the courage to address difficult material. They are performed by a quartet of extremely talented actors.
The five plays take a variety of forms. The first encapsulates a complete dramatic arc, the next two come across as extended sketches, the fourth is a set of inter-connected monologues, and the last of the five a staged poem. The progression of forms begins with more specific concerns, leading to more abstract reflections by the end. The evening starts in the darkened theater with recorded voices of varied responses to the election: some happy and others alarmed by the outcome, some eager to take a stronger stand against terrorism, others anguishing over the fate of undocumented immigrants in our communities, and a range of shades between.
The first play is James A. Williams' In Case of a Sudden Loss of Cabin Pressure. Two strangers meet in a gym sauna, a black man (Mikell Sapp) and a white man (Ricardo Vázquez), and strike up an awkward conversation. The white man recently moved to Minneapolis from a small all-white town up north. The election caused him to feel he should expand his circle, which does not include people of color. After stating in an aside to the audience, "the dude is uncomfortable around brothers" the black man admits he may have misjudged, but when the white man asks to meet for coffee so he can learn about his white privilege, the black guy pulls back, responding "I don't think you realize the size of what you're asking." The white man is sincere; he is truly making an effort. The black man is equally sincere in his need to protect himself. In two brief scenes, the play reveals how difficult it is to foster change, but also offers a strand of hope that change may yet come, but it must come from a place of mutual respect and trust.
The second play, Katie Ka Vang's Who's Payin?, centers on Audrey Park as a hospital patient without insurance, receiving bad news. As a host of costly procedures, tests, treatments, and hospital amenities are being pushed at her, the hospital public address system cheerily broadcasts the cost of each item. She is seen by an increasingly frenetic cycle of doctor, nurse, social worker, lab tech, and a cynical fellow patient. When the patient cries out "How will I pay for this?" the nurse responds, "Oh, they send you a bill," totally missing the point. This farcical piece reveals the social divide in two respectsthe dignity of a patient versus the dehumanizing health delivery system, and the gap between those who have health insurance and those who do not. It is presented with arch humor, but is also rather terrifying.
Next up is Swallow, Alan Berks' ten minute scene in which two couples of the wine-swilling, gourmet cooking ilk are about to have dinner together for the first time. It turns out that one couple is vegetarian and therefore will not touch the beef burritos the other couple is serving. On their part, the vegetarians brought a dish with a yogurt base, not knowing the other woman is lactose intolerant. There are polite apologies and attempts to conceal resentment at having to give up their own food preferences because of the other. The latter overwhelms their better natures as rabid arguments and accusations spiral, including a declaration that "God wants us to eat meat." While it is true that people are very protective about what they eat, this level of vitriol strains belief. Could they not put their respective dishes in the fridge and go out or have something delivered? Berks' assertion seems to be that, even with issues in which people of good will (if we can assume two couples who chose to dine together did so with good will) should be able to resolve their differences, our culture has reached a point in where empathy is in short supply and compromise not even on the table (no pun intended).
In The Fourth, by Christina M. Hams, four neighbors sit in a row on lawn chairs as a Fourth of July parade passes by. Fireworks are heard off stage, though one of them states those are not fireworks. As years pass by, the four speak aloud, but not to one another. They describe uncomfortable changes in the neighborhood, fears of one another, and loneliness that has taken the place of community. One of them is armed, ready to defend his home. One reaches out to her neighbor only to be harshly rebuffed. One homeowner gloats about buying low with plans to sell highuntil property values plummet. One runs for office in the Neighborhood Watch with the slogan "Make the Neighborhood Great Again!" promising to push back the "others" that make them feel unsafe. Instead of building community, each looks upon each of the others as a foe, as their lives slide into dystopia.
The final piece is a staged poem by Benjamin Benne titled (I Hate to Burst your Bubble #sorrynotsorry). Tracey Maloney and Mikell Sapp stand back to back, blowing soap bubbles, while Audrey Park and Ricardo Vázquez catch and pop the bubbles. It begins with the line "Most moments I breathe," and the response, "Yeah, me too." A range of topics ariseclimate change, Black Lives Matter, abortion, the possibility of starting over on another planet, the nature of utopiaalways with opposing views. All of it is beautifully spoken and staged, with some lines overlapping, others spoken chorally, all in a calm and dream-like state. In the end, as their bubbles are launched and just as quickly burst, they return to the fact that most moments they breathe. Common ground.
Each of these short pieces are well played by Maloney, Park, Sapp, and Vázquez, fine actors all, though not given the chance to develop real characters in these works. Director Ellen Fenster recognizes the different style and demands of each piece, shifting tone and pacing accordingly. The design team has provided a ragged looking Americana floor and backdrop (by Kellie Larson), excellent sound work by Katherine Horowitz, especially in the hospital setting and explosions and storms that attend The Fourth, smart costume choices by Amber Brown, and Michael Wangen's focused lighting design.
The Great Divide provides outstanding prompts for community discussions around the issues within, or perhaps more germane, the question of how to come together and hold civil discourse with those with whom we disagree. Facilitated discussions are held after each performance, with the exception of opening night, which I attended. The plays are, by necessity, hastily composed and mounted; given those constraints, Pillsbury House Theatre, their creative team, and the actors have done outstanding work. These theater pieces, though, ought not be judged by their stage craft, but by the PHT mission to offer theater "that promotes understanding and leads to positive action." Now more than ever, this is a compelling reason to support and take part in theater and all the arts.
The Great Divide continues through April 30, 2017, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Regular price tickets are $25.00, Pick-your-price tickets are $5.00 to $50.00. For tickets call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org.
Writers: James A. Williams (In Case of Sudden Loss of Cabin Pressure), Katie Ka Vang (Who's Payin?), Alan Berks (Swallow), Christina M. Ham (The Fourth), and Benjamin Benne (I Hate to Burst your Bubble #sorrynotsorry); Director: Ellen Fenster; Environmental Design: Kellie Larson; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Assistant Costume Designer: Molly O'Gara; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and Noël Raymond
Cast: Tracey Maloney, Audrey Park, Mikell Sapp, and Ricardo Vázquez.