Theater Spotlight: The Velvet Rut

Terry Hempleman  as Mr. Smith & John Catron as Virgil, in The Velvet Rut
Aaron Fenster
Terry Hempleman as Mr. Smith & John Catron as Virgil, in The Velvet Rut

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THE VELVET RUT
Illusion Theater
612.339.4944

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James Still's slight, ephemeral character study begins with a man billed as A Guy (Terry Hempleman) weeping alone on a church pew. Eventually a Younger Guy (John Catron) breaks the solitude, ostensibly in search of a lost book but dressed in a Boy Scout uniform and strangely inclined to digressions of a metaphysical nature. It eventually emerges that Hempleman's character is a former high school poetry teacher now adrift after witnessing an unspeakable atrocity in his classroom. Catron's scout, we begin to catch on, is some sort of embodiment of rectitude sent to bring the teacher back into the scheme of things. Or he's an angel. In any case, Still rather lazily pulls whatever mystical nonsense he requires from the ether in order to propel his narrative forward (the bulk of the second half takes place on an impromptu camping trip, complete with campfire and baying wolves). The playwright also ladles out forehead-slapping symbolism at times (Catron's scout turns out to be named Virgil, which one supposes makes Hempleman Dante, none of which explains why we should care in the first place). But the best thing that can be said about the play is that its rhythmic and smart dialogue affords a potential playground for a couple of very good actors, and under Michael Robins's direction this production takes full advantage. Hempleman gives a rich and mature performance of a schoolteacher haunted by memories of what gave his life texture and meaning, for the moment armed with sardonic humor and suffering a chunk bitten from his soul. Catron's wide-eyed wholesomeness gradually begins to show seams, and he manages the nimble feat of playing an otherworldly presence that has nearly mastered his own, semi-human role. There are some fairly egregious leaps of faith toward the end, including bodily possession from the afterlife and a bit of teleportation (it makes sense at the time, sort of), though Hempleman and Catron wrest as much truth as the circumstances will bear. We come away caring for Hempleman's brittle, wounded teacher, a man whose only aspiration is to regain the modest nobility he once knew. Too bad about the creaky celestial machinations that get him there, though. 528 Hennepin Ave., Suite 704 Minneapolis. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. $10-$25. Through May 9

 
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