Tense Past

Conversations About Hannah
Great American History Theatre

Exit the King
Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company

Family histories are tricky. Just when you think you've got a grip on why Uncle Ed had two children out of wedlock and drank himself to death, along comes Aunt Edna with the news that everything anyone ever said about ol' Ed is a lie. Grandma, of course, tells a different story--and so on, and so on, until a play like Ann Schulman's Conversations About Hannah comes along to try to sort it all out. Or not, as the case may be.

Indeed, one of the best things about Schulman's compassionate first play (premiering at the Great American History Theatre) is that she resists tying up all the loose ends of Janie's family history. Janie (played by Melinda Kordich) is a young woman determined to extract some tidbits of family lore from her grandmother, Rose (played by Nancy Gormley), though the old lady doesn't want to talk about stuff that's "nobody's business." When Janie informs her grandmother that, without the truth, she is going to have to use some artistic license to write a play about the family--that is, make it up--the horror of a fictionally distorted drama jogs the old woman's reluctant memory, but only enough to fill Janie's head with more questions than answers.

The other neat conceit that Schulman has woven into Janie's story is that history is a messy and decidedly imperfect collaboration between the writer and the past. In flashbacks to the 1930s and 1940s, when Janie's grandmother and her sister, Hannah, were growing up in a Jewish neighborhood on St. Paul's West Side, Melinda Kordich also plays young Grandma Rose--who, it turns out, isn't really her grandmother at all. As the tangled tale unfolds onstage, Grandma Rose sits off to the side, occasionally blurting out her objections to the way the story is progressing. Such intrusions can easily be overdone, but director Carolyn Levy has kept these to a sensible minimum, using them for well-timed bursts of clarification and humor. Other characters in the story also periodically feel the need to step outside the action and quibble, which adds a marvelous texture of mutual dissent to the narrative and reminds us that history is really a multitude of parallel individual universes unfolding together yet separately.

Theatergoers weaned on the twisted family nightmares of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, and Sam Shepard--or just about any made-for-TV movie--may wish for Janie to uncover some dirtier secrets. But one of the irrefutable charms of this play is that it does not stretch the truth too far; instead, it presents a host of lives that are at once plausible and charming. Ultimately, Conversations About Hannah is about the futility of trying to put all of the pieces of a family history together--and the sublime rewards of trying.

For a polar opposite view of the individual's place in history, check out Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, being presented, warts and all, by Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company. A more cynical and scathing satire on the hubris of government has yet to be written. That doesn't make it any easier to sit through, but it does give the play a sort of indestructible relevance. Watching Ionesco's wicked absurdity unfold, one finds it possible to wish that more contemporary playwrights wrote with this kind of passionate venom--and to be grateful that they don't.

Quite simply, Exit the King is a fairy tale-like parable about a king who has done everything possible to decimate his kingdom and destroy his people and then, to top it off, refuses to die gracefully. As we're dealing with Ionesco, the whole thing is wrapped in about 80 layers of metaphor having to do with the nature of power, loyalty, politics, honor, redemption, progress, man's inhumanity to man, the nature of existence, etc.

Trying to make sense of it all will either stimulate your cerebral cortex or give you a monstrous headache, both of which, I am convinced, are essential parts of the Ionesco experience. Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company wrestles commendably well with Ionesco's elusive wordplay and maddeningly elastic ideas, taking obvious delight in their nonsensical irreverence. But raising this play from the ash-heap of academic arcana is not easy. As King Berenger, Alex Podulke rules his kingdom with a frat-boy's whimsicality and descends rather impressively into the depths of his own narcissism, but even Podulke's fine performance can't keep the tedium at bay. When the dying Berenger laments, "I am coming to an end," you wish he would, and soon.

Exit the King is one of those plays that's more fun to think and talk about than to see. But if you're in the mood for an intellectual knucklebuster, this play has the stamp of a classic.

Conversations About Hannah continues at the Great American History Theatre through April 5; call 292-4323. Exit the King continues at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage through April 4; call 257-7265.

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