Homeward Bound

Go back to your little sea nymph: Penelope (Ruth Williams) leads a social revolution without her husband Odysseus in Cheap Theatre's Ithaca

Red Eye

The Walleye Kid
Theater Mu

Cheap Theatre

This coming weekend, five premieres of plays by Twin Cities writers will run simultaneously at five different local indie theaters. Last week, Red Eye, Theater Mu, and Cheap Theatre delivered new work (as is their wont); Eye of the Storm's Mr. Xmas and Illusion Theater's Angelheaded Hipster open this weekend. These tenacious indies and homegrown scripts are a sign of a healthy theater community, to be sure. Now, if audiences outside of this community were going to shows--then we might really be on to something.

And what could better sate the theatrical appetite of the masses than a play that exposes the harmony between Marxism and the mambo? It's epic class struggle with a jaunty beat and an MGM style in Kira Obolensky's rich MAMBO 55, performed by Red Eye. Welcome to the Grand Hotel, Washington, D.C., circa 1955. The guests are the best people: The women wear diamonds and the men wear animal skins--or so the scene is described by a prim, nasal-voiced switchboard Operator (Miriam Must).

There's Nina Demon (Lola Lesheim), a fading torch singer whose pink silk dress matches her pink silk gloves, which in turn match her bedmask and her bedsheets. Her sedatives are white. There's magnate Frank Collins (Larry Roupe) an "economic patriot" leading "the fight for American steel," and Bobby McPherson (Gregory Giles), who wears all white and carries a tennis racket because he "won some tournaments...a few years ago...some of them international." The Operator takes their commands and uses slow spells in her workday to study a certain Manifesto (and, really, wouldn't you?).

Diamonds and doldrums, princesses and plebeians fill a cavernous space as we cut back and forth from a bank of phones to the switchboard, to Demon's bed, to the bar, to the main lobby. Within these walls, the American Dream takes a good, sound beating. Focus on: the Porter (Dale Pfeilsticker) hoping, "With time and patience, the next time I appear at the Grand Hotel, it's as one of their guests." But that ain't gonna happen. Jump cut: A Tramp-like Jerry Klingerhoven (Matt Sciple, slouching and earnest) comes in with an envelope filled with his dinky life savings, which he plans to drink away at the Grand Hotel in one final hurrah (he's dying due to iron ore in his lungs.) Pan to: Gal Friday, Miss Phlegm (Carolyn Pool, who can summon puffy eyes at will) a "tough talking lady with a heart of gold," come to take dictation for Collins. She agrees to take a room next to the boss because he might need her at night--and young pretty stenographers don't get anywhere by being virtuous.

Fade to: A second act far too long in time and far too short in narrative resolution. It is overwritten and underwritten at once--a difficult feat. But the script's texture, the production's style, and an Indie All-Star cast keep us going until one irrefutable truth emerges: That proletariat does a mean mambo.

Where MAMBO 55 bombards us with language, Rick Shiomi and Sundraya Kase's The Walleye Kid gives us that rare new play driven by wordlessness. This folktale about a child's quest to discover her identity exists in violet light, ritualistic movement, and a steady drum beat. Sure, characters talk, but the words fall away in favor of carefully crafted spectacle.

The narrator (Sun Mee Chomet) moves at the pace of water, extending her arms in slow, graceful arcs. "Once upon a time," she intones in a bright storyteller's voice, "on a farm in Minnesota..." Lights come up on a frumpy couple sitting in their living room. There's Mary (Karen Kullman) dippy and cheerful in multicolored daisies, and George (Michael Taylor) laconic in flannel and suspenders, who keeps his pants hiked up to here. Next, some quick exposition: "It seems like everyone's having babies these days...I could try to start treatments again...." A natural cure for ennui: "Let's go ice fishing." Then a slow, deliberate drum beat. Mary and George's legs rise slowly and stretch out in front of them, landing a full second later. Thomp. Step. And again. Thomp. Step. They are unwitting players in somebody else's fairy tale.

More witting, perhaps, is the 6-foot-long walleye, made of foam and gray shimmering cloth, who swishes onstage with the help of a dancer dressed in black. "Oh," says George, with typical Nordic enthusiasm. "I got a nibble."

Of course this is no ordinary walleye; that night, a baby girl comes out of the mouth. "She's a miracle," says Mary.

"She's Korean," declares the social worker. "But we have many families. A long waiting list." Mary's face falls, a dancer pulls an imaginary string, and the social worker perks up. "But you never know..." There are forces at work here. Light, movement, and a drumbeat cast spells around little Annie (a precocious Jin-Ming Lai), as she tries to understand where she came from. Eventually, the walleye takes her across the ocean to Korea where a shaman (Jennifer Weir) conjures up Annie's ancestral memories with a folktale of her own. Weir, and Chomet create Annie's story with deliberate, coded movements that draw the currents in the air which guide the characters to their fates. Against the atmosphere of light and sound, they effect magic. Which is, after all, what theater is supposed to do.

In Ithaca, produced by Cheap Theatre, Gwendolyn Schwinke gives us a modern retelling of the Odyssey. Odysseus is gone, and his wife Penelope (Ruth Williams) has been left to run the kingdom. So she dons Pat Nixon suits and spews right-wing sentiments, whining, "I'm so tired of change." By day, she ignores the growing immigrant population and continues her husband's policy of arms shipments to oppressive regimes "in the battle for family." At night, she works at her laptop crafting a "Tapestry of Values" to inspire her kingdom.

Loyalty. Fidelity. Family First. Schwinke's Ithaca doesn't sound like a fun place to live--and it's not an easy place to dramatize, either. But things perk up as Penelope has her first feminist awakenings. Unfortunately, we see this played out in the draft before a dramaturge has excised the clichés: Odysseus calls Penelope "my girl," to which she sniffs, "I'm not 'your girl!'" Soon, Penelope is learning a thing or two about real family values through the plight of her immigrant chef, Leodes (Raine Hokan).

It's a new day in Ithaca, and the inevitable tension stirs: What will happen if Odysseus comes back? And what if Odysseus isn't as we've romanticized him, cunning and gallant? For as we discover, this Odysseus (a hypnotically energetic Alex Cole) is no epic hero but rather a refugee from the set of Full Metal Jacket, a man in fatigues who wears his combat boots to bed, and has been spending the last 20 years going "wherever the people need a soldier." Unfortunately, much of the rest of the cast do not share Cole's command of the stage. In lieu of blocking, the actors seem to roam aimlessly with little sense of character or theme. This script-in-progress needs a better cast to steer Schwinke's script in to port. Odysseus be damned: Wandering around for even a couple of hours is not always dramatically viable.

Mambo 55 plays at Red Eye through November 7; 870-0309. The Walleye Kid runs at Intermedia Arts through November 1; 871-4444. Ithaca appears at the Cedar-Riverside People's Center through November 1; 870-6583.

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