Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review - Leonce and Lena - Who knew Georg Buchner was so funny?

Normally when the name of 19th-century German playwright Georg Buchner comes up, my first thought isn't "goofy romantic comedy." But with Buchner's play Leonce and Lena, currently on display at the Walker Community United Methodist Church as the inaugural production of the new Dovetail Theatre Company, that's exactly what we get - a goofy romantic comedy with a generous helping of satire thrown in for good measure. Though better known for his tragedies (Danton's Death, Woyzeck - which is getting trotted out this December by Nimbus Theatre), Leonce and Lena proves that Buchner is also quite the comedian. In the ongoing clusterf**k of theater productions exploding onto the scene one after another this month (this weekend is only the beginning), Dovetail's Leonce and Lena is an (unfortunately) easily overlooked little gem that deserves a wider audience.

Leonce (Topher Jordan), the Prince of Popo (pronounced poh-poh), is destined for an arranged marriage to Lena (Kelsey Cramer), Princess of Pipi (pronounced pee-pee - told you it was goofy). Both young people rebel at the idea of being forced to marry someone they've never met, so they run away. Each has a trusty sidekick in tow. Leonce has befriended a commoner, Valerio (Joshua Fazeli), who keeps him entertained with witty banter. Lena hits the road with her trusted governess (Charla Marie Bailey). Guess who Leonce and Lena meet up and fall in love with out in the wider world? (If you guessed each other, you would be correct.)

Meanwhile, Leonce's father, the King of Popo (Eric Ringham) frets that the big arranged marriage event won't come off as planned, mostly because both the bride and groom are nowhere to be found. Nothing his coterie of well-meaning, if slightly inept, servants (Joanna Harmon, Ricardo Garciaherreros Quinones, Kara Davidson) can do can set him at ease. If you guessed that the solution to all this will somehow involve robots, well, you're a lot savvier than I am. (Again, goofy.)

Not your average goofy romantic comedy/satire, of course. Buchner is tweaking the notion of the haves and have-nots, the inequities of the class system (and let's face it, we still have one today, even here in America). And there's a fair amount of (amusing) meditation on the futility of life and the tyranny of work and the elusiveness of love, even a half-hearted (and easily foiled) suicide attempt. Plus, the word play here is dazzling. My theater-going companion rightly pointed out that the success of the script owes a big debt to the translator, Victor Price. I had to remind myself this was originally written in German, since this version in English is so nimble and clever and funny.

Of course, the success of the comedy also owes a great deal to Dovetail Theatre co-founders David Darrow (in the director's chair) and Kara Davidson (who, in addition to being in the acting ensemble, also served as assistant director and costume designer), and their talented cast of classically trained goofballs. (David first crossed my theater-going path earlier this year in All's Well That Ends Well, while Kara just got done with a great turn as Ophelia in the unexpectedly wonderful Fringe show Red Hamlet.)

They take a play that's 175 years old and have such fun with it that they make you forget that in lesser hands it might seem old and clunky.  Also, hats off to the cast for playing to a tiny crowd the night I attended. It's hard being in the big Walker Church space and having less than a dozen people to play to. They valiantly grappled with a couple of bits of audience participation - even though there was very little audience to participate, and the smaller the numbers, the shyer and more quiet we get. Throughout the night they all performed full-out, as if the place was packed and people had to hear them all the way back in the cheap seats of the balcony (which, having suffered through any number of mumbled selections of theater in recent months, was a wonderful treat for my ears. You'd think "speaking loudly and clearly enough to be heard and understood" would be standard operating procedure for all theater artists. This is not the case.)

The things that stick with me, though, are the tiny moments of low-tech theater magic that add a whole new level of whimsy to the piece. There's a bit with a long scroll of white paper fastened to the back wall of the theater space, on which the King's servants paint a distinct pattern during the pre-show sequence as the audience takes their seats. It is bookended by the King peeling away layer after layer of paintings from the wall at the end of the night, and the servants bringing out another blank sheaf of paper to start all over again.

But my favorite has to be the moment when Leonce and Valerio fall asleep on their travels and the King's servants appear and cover the stage - and their fellow actors - with colorful paper flowers. Lena appears, Leonce awakes, and the servants bring them brooms. Since these are young royals, they have no clue what a broom is, or how to operate it. The servants give them basic instructions, and Leonce and Lena are delighted to play with these new contraptions called brooms, sweeping through the flowers. It's a wonderful, imaginative bit of playfulness.  

Leonce and Lena zips right along, too. 70-75 minutes straight through, no intermission. You leave with a smile on your face and you've still got a chunk of your evening left to do with as you will. Yet another thing to recommend this clever little comedy. Leonce and Lena may be a bit off the beaten path, but it's theater worth seeking out.  

Very Highly Recommended

Dovetail Theatre's production of Leonce and Lena runs through October 18, 2011 at the Walker Community United Methodist Church ( 3104 - 16th Avenue South in Minneapolis). Tickets are just $10 (a steal, plus there's a pay what you can night on Monday, September 12 besides). For tickets and tons more information, visit

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