Since their debut with the 2010 Fringe sensation Ballad of the Pale Fisherman, Transatlantic Love Affair have built a reputation for the consistency and quality of work in their trademark style. A group of actors tell a story on a bare stage, using their own bodies to create any necessary props as performers segue fluidly among roles. Live music is part of the mix, in styles that vary according to the show’s subject matter.
That style is jazz — alternately perky and elegiac, performed by guitarist Dustin Tessier and drummer Adam June — for 105 Proof or, The Killing of Mack “The Silencer” Klein. Conceived and directed by Diogo Lopes, the show was the company’s entry in the 2015 Fringe (where it was a hit, of course), and it’s now become the latest of their productions to be expanded and revived at Illusion Theater.
It’s a gangland tale set in the Prohibition era, narrated by Eric Marinus as the older version of Johnny (Nick Wolf), a boy from small-town Illinois. Johnny has bigger dreams than staying at home to mind the family store, and he sees an opportunity when he realizes his grandfather’s moonshine has market value. Through his commercial enterprise, Johnny crosses paths with the gangsters who run the underground booze trade, and soon he’s up in Chicago packing heat and cracking jaws.
The story of Johnny’s rise isn’t particularly original, but that’s not what this production is about. As with Transatlantic Love Affair’s other shows, using common tropes makes it easier to quickly captivate an audience with a play that materializes out of thin air. There’s some adult language here and a lot of people are shot, but that doesn’t squelch the childlike glee these performers show as they romp through this fast-paced adventure.
In this true ensemble piece, no one steals the show, but VIP status has to go to Allison Witham, who switches in a blink from the character of Johnny’s nerve-racked childhood friend to that of the gang’s ruthless leader. Wolf finds a nice swagger as the story’s protagonist, and narrator Marinus has a casual gravity that builds to a big moment as the story gallops to its conclusion.
While it’s a satisfying tale, 105 Proof is also full of gratifying details, like the way that the gangsters’ car (made out of performers’ bodies) is visibly a different model than the one the heroes drive. It also has virtuoso moments, as when Derek Lee Miller gets into a shootout with himself as he simultaneously plays two characters on different sides of the law.
Transatlantic makes this kind of work look easy, but just watch any other company try to pull it off and you’ll appreciate the achievement of Ivey-winning artistic director Isabel Nelson and her team. Increasingly, Transatlantic Love Affair’s physicality isn’t just a method of storytelling — it is the story, and the exuberant virtuosity of the performance is inextricable from the pull of the narrative. Like Eliot Ness, these artists are untouchable.
IF YOU GO:
105 Proof or, The Killing of Mack “The Silencer” Klein
Transatlantic Love Affair at Illusion Theater
528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
612-339-4944; through November 20