ON GOLDEN POND
by Ernest Thompson
Directed by Bain Boehlke
featuring Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr
Presented by The Jungle Theater
THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (ABRIDGED)
by Jess Borgeson, Adam Long, and Daniel Singer
featuring Peter Beard, Adam Scarpello, and James Napoleon Stone
Presented by Theatre Coup d’Etat
It’s comfort food season!
According to Wikipedia, “Comfort food is traditionally eaten food which often provides a nostalgic or sentimental feeling to the person eating it, frequently with a high carbohydrate level and a simple preparation. The nostalgic element most comfort food has may be specific to either the individual or a specific culture.” While comfort food is a culinary term, I would posit that the theatre world has its own version of comfort food. These are the scripts that are well known – be it amongst the general populace or amongst theatre people – that are often produced, popular with the audience, and have a slight “feel good” quality about them. It’s not a matter of the script being bad or good; it’s a matter of the demands it asks of audience and performer alike. Naysayers might call it “polite” theatre, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; depending, of course, on the production of the script in question.
Two prime examples of theatrical comfort food are playing now in town courtesy of several IVEY Award winners: Jungle Theater’s production of On Golden Pond and Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.
On Golden Pond is a textbook definition of theatrical comfort food. When Ernest Thompson’s play debuted on Broadway in 1979, it was acclaimed at the time for its look at a marriage in its twilight years over the course of a summer vacation in their Maine lake home. But even then, even in the face of winning a Tony and a Drama Desk award, it still had the whiff of (as Vincent Canby said in The New York Times) “processed American cheese.” In fact, I am willing to wager that while it offers two fantastic roles to two actors of a certain age, the real reason this show is still in people’s minds is because of Mark Rydell’s acclaimed 1981 film adaptation which boasted iconic performances from Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman (and would net Oscars for Henry Fonda, Hepburn, and Thompson’s screenplay, and nominations for Jane Fonda, Rydell, and Best Picture). So, why would anyone, let alone The Jungle, tackle this admittedly light and somewhat creaky show?
Five words: Bain Boehlke and Wendy Lehr.
As the cantankerous Norman and his loving wife Ethel, Mr. Boehlke and Ms. Lehr are perfection. Thanks to their decades-long relationship as collaborators, the IVEY Lifetime Award winning duo’s natural ease with each other on stage breathes life into Thompson’s script (here including the revisions made for the the 2001 live television production and the 2005 Broadway revival). Mr. Boehlke’s slightly self-aware take on Norman and his faults adds layers not only to the jokes but also to Norman’s obsession with death as he approaches eighty. Ms. Lehr is a joyful force of nature; commanding the stage with more energy than most twenty year olds. Best of all, because Mr. Boehlke and Ms. Lehr are so in tune with each other on stage they fill in all the gaps of how and why this couple has lasted so long without having to rely on the script; even before Ethel says “You’re the sweetest man in the world and I’m the only one who knows it,” we see it in their interactions.
Both Mr. Boehlke and Ms. Lehr’s performances anchor this production, which is also directed by Mr. Boehlke in his characteristic humanistic directorial style which is balanced out by ironclad verisimilitude. Everything from his richly detailed set to the fully fleshed characterization that he gets out of all of his actors is spellbinding. For example, the role of Charlie the mailman is meant for comic relief; full of tics and slight malapropisms. Under Mr. Boehlke’s direction, E. J. Subkoviak turns the role from caricature into a full-blooded person; not through histrionics or big moments, but through meticulous attention to the little details that make a person unique. This meticulousness Mr. Boehlke has brought to all aspects of this production pays dividends not only in the design work and staging but with fantastic performances from all of his actors including Jennifer Blagen (in a deliciously tart turn as Norman and Ethel’s caustic daughter Chelsea), Michael Booth (as Chelsea’s bullshit-adverse boyfriend Bill), and Peter Lindell (as Bill’s smart-ass son Billy, who comes alive in his scenes with Boehlke). If there is one complaint I had, the constant closing of the curtains and slight raising of the house lights between scenes deflated the carefully wrought world that was created on stage; a necessary evil given the set and costume changes needed between the scenes but still.
On Golden Pond is theatrical comfort food. But in the hands of such experts as Mr. Boehlke, Ms. Lehr, and company, this processed American cheese has been rendered into a piping hot cheese casserole – gooey, delicious, comforting, and ultimately satisfying.
Meanwhile, two blocks away at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, Theatre Coup d’Etat was serving up a different kind of dish with their production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Since its debut in 1987, Jess Borgeson, Adam Long, and Daniel Singer’s romp through the Shakespearean canon has been a theatrical mainstay around the world. It’s zany, three-actor take on the the plays (from mashing up all the comedies into one, to turning the history plays into a football skirmish amongst the Kings of England, to turning Titus Andronicus into a demented cooking show, and more) is a slight but funny evening of theatre. And while this production was funny, I thought it could have gone further.
For one thing, while Peter Beard, Adam Scarpello, and James Napoleon Stone are genuinely fantastic on stage together and rattle off the verse with aplomb (which is a specialty with this company), there was a feeling of unease on the stage; less the spontaneous chaos that the script asks for and more of a lack of faith in the material. Another thing that I was surprised by was that Mssrs. Beard, Scarpello, and Stone did not push harder and try to customize the script more to the actors on stage, which is a common practice with this piece. Oh to be sure there were a few tweaks (as Titus Andronicus, Mr. Stone turned the role from a Julia Childs pastiche to a spot-on F-bomb dropping Gordon Ramsay spin) but I was shocked that they didn’t take the opportunity in dealing with the second-act long riff on Hamlet; especially since this company won the IVEY for their production at the American Swedish Institute last year. This isn’t a knock on this strong cast, but I wished they would have gone further with the material.
While Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is theatrical comfort food, this production is more of a quick snack than a full meal.
The Jungle Theater’s production of On Golden Pond continues through December 21, with performances Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $25-43 and can be purchased in person at The Jungle Theater’s box office, located at 2951 Lyndale Ave S in Minneapolis, or online at their website.
Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) continues through November 23, with performances Friday – Sunday at 7pm at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, located at 810 W Lake St in Minneapolis. Tickets are $15 advance or $20 at the door and can be purchased at the Bryant-Lake Bowl’s site.
Photo Credits: Michal Daniel / Jungle Theater, Theatre Coup d’Etat