It begins with the early-morning dreams of the townspeople and ends that same evening with two unfulfilled romances. In between resides an indelible portrait of a small Welsh coastal town, painted by the master poet Dylan Thomas in Under Milk Wood, now being revived at the Jungle Theater. This "play for voices" creates a place so alive, so comical and tender that you may think you've lived there yourself.
More than 50 residents are brought to often-eccentric life by a sterling cast of seven actors. This work was created, and is essentially presented here, as a radio play, with the performers seated in an arc of chairs, occasionally taking turns downstage center to present slices of their lives. And while the small-town location may be fairly ordinary, the people certainly aren't. A blind, retired ship captain (Paul Smith) converses with his drowned comrades who shout memories at him from the sea. Young suitor Mog Edwards, played with comically wide-eyed rigidity by Nick O'Donnell, conducts a platonic courtship with a local girl. Meanwhile, acid-tongued Lilly Smalls (Ann Kellogg) berates herself in the mirror, pointing out her real and imagined physical shortcomings with a sarcastic sneer.
Elsewhere in town, Organ Morgan (Kevin Kling), a clenched ball of repressed passion with an unseemly Bach fetish, writhes as he caresses his keyboard. A street or two away, Polly Garter (Claudia Wilkens) pines for her dead lover, Little Willie Wee, singing him a ballad of sweet longing. And the insufferable harridan Mrs. Pugh (Gretchen Douma), teeth clenched in a deathly grin, has her homicidally inclined husband wait on her.
It is how these folks talk that continually enthralls. Thomas's words and images tumble over themselves like eager pups, seemingly in a rush to show off. While at first the pace of the lyrical Anglo-Welsh language seems too compressed, you soon find yourself relaxing into the rhythm of his storytelling. The proceedings are kept lively by director Bain Boehlke, who also plays the narrator and a couple of the townspeople (as Thomas himself did in the New York performances just before his death in 1953). He sets the stage with a cozy description of the drowsy town: "And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wet-nosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners..."
This is a work meant to be read aloud, but when it is, it is almost too rich and euphonious to perceive in all its detail. No matter. You come away with the pulse and breath of what life is truly like.
Where Thomas luxuriates in the universe that is small-town Wales, a darker mood infects the Emerald Isle across St. George's Channel, launching its young protagonist far afield. Agonized by the violence of "the troubles" in her country, willowy Siobhan (Barbara Ryan) seeks a place where she can sort out the issues of national and personal identity in Awam Amkpa's Not in My Season of Songs. Where some of us may take this as an opportunity to visit France, the Virgin Islands, or perhaps the nicer bits of Anoka County, few may set off for Nigeria. Yet that is where intrepid Siobhan heads to find answers.
This Pangea World Theater production, directed by the Nigerian playwright, revolves around Siobhan and the relationship she develops with two men she meets in the chaotic African country. Khalid (Gregory Singfield) is a friendly African American seeking his own roots. He introduces her to Yakubu (Okokun O. Udo), a local intellectual who is obsessed with making and remaking maps of his continually morphing homeland.
The play raises some provocative ideas, with Siobhan seeking insight by "floating over" and ignoring national boundaries, while Yakubu insists the truth lies in the precise cartographic delineation of such borders.
Regrettably, all these characters remain foreign to the audience, acting as spokespeople for themselves, declaring their ideas and intentions without living them fully onstage. Though Pangea's theatrical mission involves fusion of global voices and theater, it's hard to believe that any nation's theater would tolerate such overacted characters, shouted dialog, and thrust-and-parry blocking.
Still, the head games of Siobhan and Yakubu are interesting to observe as they develop a close relationship amid the prickly underbrush of their personal and political differences--both traversing boundaries in search of themselves.
Under Milk Wood runs through January 9 at the Jungle Theater; (612) 822-7063.Not In My Season of Songs runs through November 28 at Mixed Blood Theatre; (612) 343-3390.