Shadows and Angels

Max Sparber

For those of you who don’t know it, The Children’s Theatre Company’s artistic director, Peter C. Brosius, is behind the most interesting productions in the Twin Cities. He has a taste for offbeat, ingenious talent and isn’t afraid of risks, leading to productions rich with content and magnificent in conception. Honestly, the only theaters in the Twin Cities that can boast the sort of technical excellence on-hand at the CTC are the Guthrie Theater, with its near-limitless resources, and the Jungle Theater, thanks to the famous fastidiousness of its artistic director, Bain Boelke, himself one of the founders of the CTC.

This past season of children’s theater included a production of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, created by singer Ruth MacKenzie (who played the title character) and directed by Brosius and puppeteer Michael Sommers. The production was magnificent, pairing MacKenzie’s longstanding fascination with Finnish folk music with Sommer’s witty, elegiac sense of design. The Snow Queen was a gorgeous thing to look at, in which flowers sang chattering, haunting melodies while the moon itself plummeted from the sky to offer advice, and Brosius followed it up with a production of Alice in Wonderland that featured the Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Dominique Serrand in the director’s chair. Serrand radically revised the story, presenting a version of Lewis Carroll’s tale that included dozens of actors dressed as paupers rolling back and forth upon the stage like waves, as the role of Alice herself was swapped between a half-dozen performers, including two children, a very large man, and a mannequin.

Brosius’s new season is even more ambitious, as he has opened it with two plays, running in repertory. The first, A Year With Frog and Toad, will not be discussed here, except to mention that it stars Broadway actor Mark Linn-Baker, who may be best known to audiences as the American cousin on the long-running sitcom Perfect Strangers; also worth mentioning is the fact that once Frog and Toad finishes its Minneapolis run, it will head to The New Victory Theater on Times Square.

Alternating with Frog and Toad is a production named A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, which also has a few qualities deserving immediate mention. The first is that the play is based on a children’s story by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, telling of a small Caribbean town thrown into turmoil by the sudden appearance of an angel. Additionally, the play is a product of a Brosius-instigated program called THRESHOLD, a program dedicated to creating new works by emerging playwrights. In this instance, the playwright in question is Nilo Cruz, a Cuban-born writer with a clear-affinity for the magical realism of Marquez, although, in Cruz’s case, this translates as a tendency to overwrite his material. Very Old Man is steeped in awkward language and unneeded repetition. As an example, the play introduces a marvelous stage image: A character who has been weeping so relentlessly, for so long, that’s she wears a vessel around her neck, into which she pours her tears. But Cruz isn’t satisfied to leave this image alone – he has his characters, in baroque dialogue, repeatedly refer to the woman’s tears.

But if the script suffers from Cruz’s occasionally florid dialogue, it offers a sumptuous collection of stage pictures (in fact, there are times when the play might as well have been dialogue-free, as the production’s staging is so adept at telling the story). In particular, Brosius and director Graciela Daniele have enlisted the talents of shadow puppeteer Janie Geisler, director of CalArt’s Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts. In lieu of a painted backdrop, Geisler bathes the production in shadows of creeping vines and tropical flowers that seem borrowed from folk-art woodcuts. The results are that Brosius has again brought to the CTC stage a play that is great to look at, even if it is occasionally difficult to listen to.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings plays through October 19 at the Children’s Theatre Company, (612) 874-0500