Friday, March 16, 2018

Healing a Nation with The Great Divide II

Pillsbury House Theatre's latest series is original, local, and a true product of our times


The show comes with several interactive elements like a quiz on the truthiness of news headlines and a vote of confidence in different media sources - brilliant stuff. 

Is there anything that can get our sharply divided political parties to cross the bridge towards each other?

It's so easy these days to feel like compromise is dead, forgiveness is nonexistent and everyone is going batshit crazy. Amid the deafening din of voices screaming endlessly into the yawning political void, it's very easy to feel like there isn't a single person out there just listening anymore.

The Great Divide II at Pillsbury House Theatre, a sequel to last year's The Great Divide, is attempting to change that - at least a little. Pillsbury commissioned five local playwrights - some of my favorites! - to write short plays around this theme of political dissonance and our so-called "post-truth" (RIP) era, attempting to find some clarity in the mess. It's an ambitious project with mixed success, and I really admire the attempt to try to sort us all out.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

The plays written are by Jessica Huang, Stacey Rose, Tim J. Lord, Christina M. Ham, and Andrew Rosendorf, respectively. All are acted by a tight-knit cast of four, including Tracey Maloney, Audrey Park, Mikell Sapp, and Ricardo Vázquez. This is a talented crew altogether and the cast is the perfect choice to reflect these plays. They each take a turn in the spotlight and play a variety of roles swapping genders, motivations and back stories. It truly enhances the understanding of how trivial so many of our perceived differences (or casting choices tbh) are - honestly, are assumptions about people with a variance in skin color really the thing we want to hang our ideological hats on? - and it allows these strong actors a chance to really shine and make the most of the material.

It feels weird to write a "traditional" review of this show, so instead I'm going to summarize each short play with a couple of my thoughts:

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

The Journalist's Creed: (Actual) Emails from a (Brief) Career in News by Jessica Huang: 
It took me a while to sift this one out and I think I'm still sifting. I assume this is somewhat autobiographical based on the title and the feel of the show, but it was a little hard to follow. The same stylistic choices that are performatively delightful - for example the emphasis on spelling out asides such as "dot dot dot" (aka the etc. dots you see in punctuation like this --> .... ) - also make it a little hard to follow the action because so much has been redacted, literally. When it begins it feels edgy, but transitions into confusion. Still I think this really conveyed the mass turmoil that has roiled the journalism industry and helps shine a light on how little due diligence journalists are able to perform anymore. Strong independent journalism is a vital function of a democracy but it's been under attack, and losing, for years now. It's going to take a lot to bring it back from the brink.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Sven, Ole & The Armageddon Myth by Stacey Rose: This was the biggest surprise. Stacey Rose was new-to-me completely and I am totally seeking out her work from now on! This was super creative, almost a drug-fantasy-murder-mystery, and it kept adding twists and surprises that had me guessing and engaged. There's a lot of plot development despite the short length, and it was unexpectedly quite funny. The overall vibe was to me something of a reverse-Get Out - my partner disagreed and thought it more related to American Psycho - but either way, this was really fresh and inventive, and I enjoyed it a lot. It felt a little disconnected from the overall theme of "news," instead focusing more on the general overt hostility afflicting the American populace, but I didn't mind and would happily watch it again.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Wild Creatures by Tim J. Lord: This had something of a feminine, mystical energy that was interesting coming from a dude writer. It also had a bit of a murderous bent to the plot (a theme?). I got a little bit lost in the legend Wild Creatures was trying to create. I think it was trying to do some sort of high level fantasy about Hilary Clinton, very abstractly so, but I can't be sure. It was definitely entertaining, and I enjoyed the weirdness of the narrative - I'm just really not sure how this one tied directly into the theme. I'll keep thinking about it.

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Mt. Rushmore by Christina Ham: Christina Ham was the main draw for me to see this anthology and she delivered. I thought this was the most fully fleshed story and provided the most context for the conversations my POC friends are having right now about politics. The story centers around a mixed group of friends who go to visit Mt. Rushmore and have a frank, and frankly uncomfortable, conversation about the legacy of the presidents we've enshrined there. It has a lot of heat and a lot of nuance packed into a short space, and I could definitely see this expanded into a larger work (maybe even combined with Stacey Rose's piece? It would be super interesting!).

Photo courtesy of Pillsbury House Theatre

Breathe by Andrew Rosendorf: This was the most abstract of the pieces. It again wandered away from the central theme of news, but the tangential focus to climate change and modern environmental movements was different from the others and still enjoyable. It features some really striking puppet work from three of the actors who tag team to embody a giant polar bear (with a shocking amount of nuance, I might add - it was a really gorgeous effect), who pleads with a wandering hiker to help her find food so she can regain strength to feed her cubs. There is no polar bear food in Minnesota, of course, and the polar bear is sore outta luck. It was a surprisingly emotional story, and I thought it did a nice job of embracing nature's perspective on the hot mess humans have made of the planet without getting too cutesy or cartoony.

Overall, this is a really inspiring body of work! Between the playwrights, actors, DJ and production team you are able to see some really exciting and up and coming artists in The Great Divide II. I think continuing to try to be of-the-moment in our reflections of art is a really important thing to do these days, and this was a pleasantly short, accessible way to get my juices flowing. If you want to see something totally new and unique and that may help you make sense of what is happening (or at least feel like someone "gets it"), hit up The Great Divide II at Pillsbury House Theatre before it closes on March 25. Click here for more information or to buy tickets.