Kevin Kling writes a love letter to democracy
It's fitting that Politico, the sixth collaboration featuring Kevin Kling at Open Eye Figure Theatre, hardly has anything to with politics. Sure, there's a voting booth at the front of the house and the set has a distinct polling-place vibe, but there's little talk of parties, policy, or candidates in the two-hour show.
Typical of the storyteller and writer, Kling tackles his subject at an oblique angle. The only election mentioned is one when he and some college buddies ran a goat for homecoming queen in college. Politics, however, does hang in the background of several of the stories — sneaking a longtime friend into Canada at the tail end of Vietnam, or his experiences in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s.
Instead, fear, hope, transformation, and especially love (the show is subtitled "A Love Letter to Democracy") sit at the forefront of these stories. The themes are reflected in the music of Michelle Kinney, Jacqueline Ultan, and Simone Perrin and through the direction and puppetry of Michael Sommers. All of it combines into a unique theatrical experience that absolutely should not be missed.
The musical selections are inspired, merging original compositions, traditional folk songs, and reinterpretations of politically charged rock tunes. The first act closes with a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" that packs a tremendous wallop, even if it is being played on a pair of cellos.
Sommers's puppetry moments are short but serve as an additional spice to the theatrical stew. The best is when he animates Old Glory from hanging limp at the side of the stage to the point where it appears to be rippling in the wind, while the musicians play "America the Beautiful."
Kling is the center of attention here, sharing, as usual, a mixture of tales from his colorful life and thoughts about the deeper meanings of what we experience and who we are as human beings. "I am, therefore I think" could be a theme here, as he builds several stories around shifting perspectives on the world.
In Czechoslovakia, he is at first thrilled to discover that his play, 21A, has been banned on the upcoming tour of the country. Then, immersed in the rebellious spirit of the theater community (several of its members would go on to lead the Czech Republic government), he puts on a late-night, clandestine performance of the play. That eventually worries him sick — has he put all these people in danger by performing? — until Kling learns exactly why the play was dropped from the program.
Kling's final story merges his physical disability, his work with Interact in Minneapolis, his motorcycle accident 11 years ago, and a performance in Australia that brought Interact and another like-minded company together to perform with a famed opera singer. Giving away the details of the story would be unfair, but the whole piece was a powerful, emotional top to the evening.
Except that it was topped a few minutes later, as the trio of musicians tackled Patti Smith's "People Have the Power." The arrangement wasn't as revelatory as the Creedence at the end of Act One, but its placement was perfect. By the end, Kling, at a podium off to one side of the stage, was looking back, mouthing the words of the chorus. It didn't take long for the packed house to serve as an impromptu choir, carrying on the chorus even as the company was ready to take its bows. All of it — the song selection, the performance, the pure honesty of the audience's reaction — was a perfect end to the evening.
Really, this is why I go to live theater. It lives at its best in the merging of pinpoint professionalism and a sense that anything can happen. These five performers definitely have the first, and the piece they have constructed amply showcases the second. The show only runs through this weekend, and Open Eye isn't a huge venue. I recommend reserving your tickets early for this gem.
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