Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A year later, Pillsbury House is presenting The Great Divide II, another collection of five short plays to once again take our national temperature as we journey through what feels like a new era in the way politics and public discourse are taking place. Given more lead time to prepare, the second edition of The Great Divide feels more polished than the first, both in the writing and execution of the work. The result is artistically satisfying, stimulating, andgiven the task at handunsettling.
Happily, the four actors from last year's The Great Divide have all returned: Tracey Maloney, Audrey Park, Mikell Sapp and Ricardo Vázquez. Each is a talented and versatile artist in his or her own right. Together, they have become a close-knit ensemble who play easily off one another, and are able to draw unspoken meaning from their scripted text.
The first of the plays, The Journalist's Creed: Actual Emails from a (Brief) Career in News is Jessica Huang's account of her experience as a journalist, from graduating with a degree in journalism in 2002 through several career changes and a prestigious fellowship, ending in 2010 when she abandoned the field to focus on writing plays. Most of the dialogue is in the form of emails spoken by Huang (as portrayed by Audrey Park) or her correspondents, played in rotation by the rest of the cast. Many of them end with "dot, dot, dot", as if they are eager to move on before finishing their thoughts. Actual headlines from the era are interspersed throughout, meshing personal and world events together.
These communiques reveal Jessica's idealism as a fledgling journalist, sullied by disappointments with unethical behavior (a reporter brags about making up quotes for the mayor), unreliable sources that cannot be named (every person and organization throughout the piece is referred to as "redacted"), colleagues interested only in career advancement, and limitations on what she is permitted to say in print. Her account puts into question the reliability and evenhandedness of the news we receive, though it is clearly only her singular experience set, not a condemnation of journalism writ large.
The second and most amusing of the plays is Stacey Rose's Sven, Ole & the Armageddon Myth. Three office workers gather in the apartment of a fourth co-worker, Wendell (Mikell Sapp), to get stoned and drunk as they await what they believe to be a nuclear attack. Audrey Park plays a lesbian who gives straight sex one last try via a quickie with her host, confirming that she had not been missing out on anything all those years. Ricardo Vázquez is distressed that cell phone service has been lost and he cannot contact his wife, even though that morning he had been ranting about what a bitch she is in the company break room. Tracey Maloney appears as the most innocent of the group, coping with the crisis by reciting lame Sven and Ole jokes, as repeated air-raid alarms ratchet up the tension every couple of minutes. Though these people are boorish, the banter Rose has written for them is pretty funny. Then Wendell turns on the other three, condemning them for their human failings and administering his own deranged form of justice against them. His assumption of moral superiority is revealed as the greatest threat of all, as we see that nothing is as it seems.
Play three, Wild Creatures, by Tim J. Lord, is the most abstract of the five. Opening with Sapp and Park warming themselves over a campfire, Mikell tells a dark story, with a hand puppet to assist him. The scene shifts to Vázquez, protagonist of Mikell's story, addressing a crowd, pumping up his importance in their eyes. He is suddenly back in the heights of a wilderness where his heroic deed occurred, overlooking the city, when a woman (Mahoney), a strange mix of witch, nymph and goddess, appears behind him to assert her dominance over this domain. She seems wise but unyielding, a source of eternal truths not always easy to abide. His challenge to her reign prevails, for he knows what the people want: Jobs! But as he descends, she remains in her loft above the people, knowing that his sway over them will not last. Now we look back at Sapp and Park who leave their storytelling circle and traipse off to find the mystery woman for themselves.
For what it's worth, this is set in southern Illinois, a region beset by shuttered coal mines and factories, the kind of region primed to respond to promises to bring jobs back to America. Also, the unseemly "conquering hero" of the piece could be seen as a stand-in for Donald Trump. It has elements of allegory, and elements of satire, but Lord throws in too many stray pieces, and the result is not particularly lucid nor compelling.
In the fourth play, Mt. Rushmore by Christina M. Ham, two couples vacationing together are at the Mount Rushmore National Monument. One of them (Vázquez) is singularly unhappy to be there, railing against the commercialism, the high prices at the gift shop, the follies committed by the four men honored by the monument (from a revisionist, politically correct perspective, of course), and his wish that they had gone to the Crazy Horse monument instead. He comes across as the a-hole in the group. At the end, after a major storm breaks out, the reverence for our nation's forefathers proves to be the undoing of this crowd. Our ranting man may have been on to something. In contrast to Lord's play, Ham's is totally direct, and brashly delivers on its theme.
The final and most moving play is Breathe by Andrew Rosendorf. Maloney is walking through the Minnesota north woods, coming from her recently deceased father's hunting cabin. She is heavy with feelingssentiment, misgivingswhen she encounters a polar bear sprawled on the ground and unable to move. The bear's head is beautifully crafted by Masanari Kawahara, truly a master of the art, and operated by Park, who also speaks for the bear. Park's body, along with Vázquez and Sapp's, are covered by a large white sheet, and form the dying bear's defeated body. After determining that the bear will not hurt her (perhaps because she is kind-hearted, more likely because she is too weak), Maloney approaches. The encounter between the two is tenderly written and beautifully performed.
Between each play, DJ Chamun spins albums with a wide range of musical styles while the company makes quick costume changes and rearranges the set. Lighting designer Michael Wangen and sound designer Katharine Horowitz provide essential elements throughout the plays, while Amber Brown has designed costumes that are altered to meet the differing needs of each play. Noël Raymond has directed the entire collection with a sense of unifying theme, in spite of the great differences among the five plays.
None of these short plays examine an issue in depth, develop full blown characters, nor offer any solutions to the problems they raise. They do capture different aspects of our national mood, the challenges we face listening to the news each day, and the fact that our individual responses to these issues are enormously varied. The Great Divide II prompts us to consider the variations, perhaps seeing things with a different slant, stimulated to consider different approaches to breaching the divide. No doubt a year from now we will be hungry for The Great Divide III.
The Great Divide II, through March 25, 2018, 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: Jessica Huang (The Journalist's Creed: (Actual) Emails From a (Brief) Career in News), Stacey Rose (Sven, Ole & the Armageddon Myth), Tim J. Lord (Wild Creatures), Christina M. Ham (Mt. Rushmore) and Andrew Rosendorf (Breathe); Director: No?l Raymond; Environmental Design: Kellie Larson; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Katharine Horowitz; DJ: DJ Chamun; Puppet Design: Masanari Kawahara; Assistant Costume Designer: Ken Van Duyne; Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Pillsbury House Theatre Producing Directors: Faye M. Price and No?l Raymond
Cast: Tracey Maloney, Audrey Park, Mikell Sapp, and Ricardo Vázquez.