A new theater company with firmly established Twin Cities artists has ventured forth with a credo that is, not surprisingly, given the founders, committed to new ideas; this has been the calling card for shows conceived and guided by Dominique Serrand and Steve Epp since their Theatre de la Jeune Lune days.
Drawing from their considerable talents in physical theater, and joining forces with Nathan Keepers and Christina Baldwin – powerhouse talents in their own right – this new entity has assembled an interpretation of a Faulkner story, “The Old Man.” They might have chosen this story about the great 1927 Mississippi flood because the parallels with Hurricane Katrina’s devastation grounded the experience for today’s audiences, but they couldn’t have known as this show was in development that the lower Mississippi would again suffer from catastrophic flooding during the show’s run.
That aside, there’s a loose story which fires the journey down the river. A convict (Keepers) is sent out on the river to rescue a woman on a building. He never finds her, but he rescues a woman in a tree (Baldwin) who is about to give birth. The convict is a dull-witted sort who landed in prison after trying to rob a train with a gun that didn’t function. He is equally naïve about life in general and women in particular.
Along the way, he rescues a deer (Katelyn Skelley) tangled in the brush (a refrigerator on the back wall), struggling with it mightily before it scampers off. The metaphor at that moment is clear enough, but when the deer returns, its meaning is not so clear. I anticipated that the importance of the dancing deer, which now participated in every scene, would be revealed with the convict’s destiny, but it wasn’t.
The show is partially direct address, with characters (even the convict and himself as an old man (Epp) knitting narration and dialogue together as the story floats along its river voyage. Much of the narration fell to Epp (part live presence and part ghost in this story) who is able to balance the two with his lines as if they are one, much like children when they play make-believe. Since he is so comfortable with this convention, we are too.
The inventive use of space and the skill with which all our senses are engaged is what makes this play interesting to experience. And it is something more than watching. The chorus underscores much of the action with rhythmic spirituals sung in luscious four-part harmony, and Baldwin’s turn with Stabat Mater by Pergolesi is just plain beautiful – and it was sung on her back on one end of a see-saw.
Water is splashed, sprayed and drops as rain from above; gunshots ring out (two athletic shoes slapped together); lumber waves above our heads and lands in perfect rows on the other side of the stage to construct another locale. Their staging is not only endlessly inventive, it all works together.
What’s problematic about this play is that it’s hard to care very much about this journey. The characters didn’t seem to connect emotionally with each other, so I had little invested emotionally in them. If they don’t care particularly about this journey, why should I?
Nevertheless, it raises questions of race and prejudice, injustice, politics, education – any number of social issues relevant in 1927 and still relevant today. And I applaud this company for not playing safe, for pairing the unlikely, for seeing theater itself as a journey, rather than as a means to an end at the box office. This play might not have accomplished everything that was intended, but it is provocative enough to make me want to see what they’ll do next time.
“Come Hell and High Water” runs through May 29 and The Southern Theater.