Song Of Extinction by Theater Latté Da performing on the Guthrie’s Dowling Stage

February 26, 2011
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Carla Noack as Lily, David Mura as Khim, John Middleton as Ellery in Song Of Extinction. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Normally Latté Da specializes in intelligent but feel-good music theater: All Is Calm, La Bohème, The Full Monty, etc.  But here they are, tackling E.M. Lewis‘s challenging straight play (such an odd term) Song Of Extinction (Theater Latté Da performing on the Guthrie’s Dowling Stage, through March 20).  Song Of Extinction is a fierce meditation on death, species extinction, grief, familial dysfunction, adolescent anger, and the redemptive power of music.  It’s often frustrating – but, really, what truly ambitious play isn’t?  This piece is intense, rich, affecting.

Playwright Lewis approaches her story with cinematic theatricality: scenes are short, often just fragments, woven together with music, dreamy lights (and harsh fluorescents), flashbacks, soliloquies.  All this imparts an hallucinatory intensity to the proceedings.

Lily Forrestal is dying, of cancer.  Her husband Ellery, perhaps as a defense, obsesses on the fate of a Bolivian insect, about to become extinct, and thus ignores his wife’s physical deterioration, as well as his 15 year old son Max’s building anger.  Left to his own devices, unfed and dirty,  Max (with his ever-present cello) washes up in the office of Khim Phan, a high school biology teacher, a man caught up in his grief for his family, slaughtered thirty plus years earlier in the Cambodian killing fields.  I will refrain from describing in detail what happens when Pham visits the Forrestals in the hospital late at night.  Know that it’s surprising and highly effective.

All in all, marvelous stuff.  But this play is tricky: the heavy use of theatrical techniques makes us pull back, whereas the story makes us want to lean in, embrace the characters.  This creates a tension which, for the most part, director Peter Rothstein (also Latté Da’s Artistic Director) handles well.

On the surface, David Mura (an accomplished writer, it should be mentioned – Turning Japanese) gives us a Khim Phan easing through a pleasant and rumpled middle age, with dorky cardigans and corduroys.  But Mura also plays his character with an accented reserve and an awkwardness that vividly delineates Phan’s overwhelming survivor guilt and heartbreaking loneliness.  Mura lends the play understated emotional resonance.

Also first rate are John Middleton and Carla Noack as the Forrestals.  Both players are tall and lanky and both discover pitch-perfect detail.  Middleton strikes a lovely balance between Ellery’s confusion and his love for his family.  Similarly, Noack’s Lily faces death with a combination of Wit-like courage and understandable terror.  These pros anchor the cast.

Anyone raising a teen-ager knows how illogically volatile they can be and Dan Piering, as Max, captures this gorgeously.  He also plays a mean cello.  Good performances are given by Garry Geiken and Matt Rein in small but important roles.

Recommended – but not for audiences looking for mild post-prandial entertainment.  If this is what you want, I would send you off to the Jungle for Shirley Valentine.  Go to Song Of Extinction hungry and then head out for a post-play meal/discussion with your friends.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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