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Freshwater uncovers 19th-century identity in Mrs. Charles

Nathan Tylutki and Neil Schneider in <i>Mrs. Charles</i>.

Nathan Tylutki and Neil Schneider in Mrs. Charles.

An enigmatic painting hanging at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts inspired the latest original work by the award-winning Freshwater Theatre.

Playwright Ruth Virkus has long been intrigued by John Singleton Copley's Portrait of Sarah Allen, nee Sargent. The 18th-century painting features what seems to be a man living as a woman.

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Virkus took that as inspiration and began crafting a story set amid the bustle of late 19th-century Minneapolis, as the city began to find its own identity on the prairie.

"I spent months reading everything. I just fell even more in love with this city. The people who settled here were interested in building something to last," Virkus says.

The play centers on a pair of men, Charles and Walter, who recreate themselves as Charlotte and Walter when they move to Minneapolis as a way to live together in the restrictive 1870s.

While there are fictional characters at the heart of the story, a number of historical figures are part of the play as well, including names you would recognize from Minneapolis streets, neighborhoods, and buildings. 

"Some of the characters really introduced themselves; our characters would have every reason to run across them. I stole them, and I stole their wives. Charlotte's character needed a support system of her own," Virkus says.

As with past productions, Freshwater will present a second show in repertoire with Mrs. Charles. This time out, it's a collection called Archival Revival. During the research for the play, Virkus came across numerous intriguing and downright odd newspaper articles and stories. A number of these were posted on Freshwater's website, with an open invitation for creators to take the ideas and run with them.

The results range from a musical about a woman's repeated attempts to commit suicide to an exploration of "rodents of unusual sizes on Bohemian Flats, eating the chickens," Virkus says.

Another piece, "Backstage at the Bijou Opera House," explores a prairie kind of theatrical problem. "There really was a wolf attack backstage," Virkus says. "And there was a heroic dog who saved this woman's life."

IF YOU GO:

Mrs. Charles and Archival Revival
Saturday-May 18
Nimbus Theatre
1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis
$15 for Mrs. Charles; $12 for Archival Revival
For tickets and more information call 612.816.8479 or visit online.