This is the second time director Matt Sciple has turned to the bloodied kitchen that is the set for this comedy of familial disaster by George F. Walker. Sciple first directed Escape From Happiness in 1997 under the auspices of his own theater company, Bald Alice. (The current production is by Fifty Foot Penguin.) But in the intervening half-decade, Sciple has sharpened his skills at staging bleak comedies, having helmed such queasy fare as Joe Orton's Loot and Nicky Silver's The Maiden's Prayer in this past year alone. So while City Pages' own Kate Sullivan could merely conclude of 1997's Escape that "the overall effect is one of unrealized potential," this latest version leads me to the opposite conclusion.
Sciple and the cast he has assembled for Escape From Happiness form one of the only true theater scenes currently working in the Twin Cities. While I might see an actor like Carolyn Pool pop up hither and yon in productions at the Park Square Theatre and the Great American History Theatre, mostly I see her in plays produced by a small cadre of theater professionals that, until recently, mostly worked out of the Cedar Riverside People's Center. And if I am to attend three to five plays per week, as I have done for the past two years, at least one will include theater artists from this cadre (many of whom are named in the paragraphs below). Damn the Guthrie's non-existent company: These people form the spine of the Twin Cities theater community, and they are often at their most comfortable when working with one another. Increasingly, that work has been located at the Acadia Café and Cabaret, since actor/director/producer Zach Curtis helped found the Directors Theater in the space.
Curtis is also the artistic director of Fifty Foot Penguin. As I am sure even he will admit, Curtis does too many plays each year: He is often found acting in one while directing another and producing a third, or some combination of the above. (Here, for example, he is both the producer of Escape From Happiness and one of its lead characters, Junior). When friends advise Curtis that he is overworked, they sometimes tentatively suggest that he give up Fifty Foot Penguin, as the company is more a labor of love than a prosperous enterprise (in the stubbornly money-resistant theater world, this argument is a slippery slope indeed). But Fifty Foot Penguin has increasingly become the location for this theater cadre's best work, and this new staging of Escape From Happiness must rank in that category.
Sciple has played to the strengths of his cast with this production, something that may only be possible in a community where people know one another this intimately. (On the subject of intimate: Pool and Sciple are a married couple offstage.) Zach Curtis is particularly good at playing clodpated thugs, and so Sciple has cast him as Junior in this play, a character notable for getting beat up in the first act and then moaning and complaining in a bewildered fashion for the remainder of the show. Carolyn Pool has a knack for playing self-absorbed dingbats, and so Sciple has cast her as Mary Ann, the looniest of three sisters driven mad by their father's brutality. For the other two sisters, Sciple has cast Stacia Kramer and Ellen Apel--members of the cadre dating back to the People's Center (in fact Apel, along with Pool, appeared in Sciple's first production of Escape). Kramer's talent is for weepy vitriol, while Apel's is for characters that are snippety and bullying, and these are the exact roles they play. Dale Pfeilsticker is an odd stage presence with a penchant for humorous exasperation, and this production features him tied to a chair, alternating between begging for his life and accusing the remaining cast of madness.
And so it goes as you look down the program: Character for character, Sciple has selected each performer from his small community to create a precise jigsaw puzzle of personality and behavior. This is still the same play from five years ago, still an overlong and oddly moody look at a fragmented family. But the addition of a half-decade of constant work--often on other stages in other plays--allows the cast to make this three-hour show seem short, sharp, and thrilling.