Monday, August 16, 2004

Fringe Day 9, Part 2 - August 14, 2004, 2:30pm

John and Jen: Part One
Nautilus Music-Theater
Hennepin (Hey City) Stages, upstairs

This is a tough one for me. I like the idea more than the execution.

I don't mean by this that I don't like the way it was staged. I don't like the musical itself.

The performers, on the other hand, are another story entirely. They make it worth it to listen to this piece. Had I not had another show that required my presence, I might have stayed on to hear Part Two just because of the singers. When I was touched or amused, it was because of what JP Fitzgibbons and Kersten Rodau brought to the performance.

The idea of two acts of a musical - each complete in and of itself as a story, and yet with resonances across the whole canvas if you see the two together - is a nifty idea. Even niftier is the idea that in the first act John is Jen's younger brother, and in the second act, the same actor is Jen's young son, who she named after her brother.

I realize the financial necessities of keeping cast sizes small, but two person plays rarely if ever work for me. Keeping the whole wide world firmly offstage becomes more and more obvious the longer we spend time with the only two people in the world we're allowed to see.

Two actors playing multiple roles, that's one thing. Two and only two, or in this case three characters, that starts to seem lazy and cheap.

Particularly when the story being told has such a large canvas - first, in this part, a brother and sister coming of age in the turbulent 1950's and 1960's; and in part two, a single mother trying to raise a child in the 1970's and 1980's. How are we to get any sense of the scope of the sorts of issues being addressed if we can't get outside of John and Jen's insular little world views?

Certainly not with this music. Though the singers and accompaniast are incredibly gifted (and a gift to these songs they perform), the songs themselves were not particularly memorable.

Confining the entire world to these two characters also makes it way too easy to get ahead of the plot. If you're dealing with the 1960's, one of them has to be against the war, one of them has to be for it. It's not a stretch to imagine young Johnny going off to war, either voluntarily or not. And it's also not far from there to the notion that he's probably not coming back except in a body bag. Also, in a nation obsessed with daytime drama, anyone with half a brain can see that a promise one character makes to the other to always protect them is sure to be doomed to the worst kind of failure.

In addition, these characters (despite the Herculean efforts of the actors to put some flesh on their bones), are only just sketched in. We don't really get to see the characters develop. We are just supposed to take their abrupt changes at face value, because the piece has to keep leap-frogging ahead in time to get the characters to age into maturity. Unfortunately, most of the growth and change takes place offstage, between the songs, rather than in the material. We're told, rather than dramatically shown on stage, what's supposed to have transpired.

I kept wishing the creators of this piece had access to performers like the ones at Nautilus, so they'd be challenged to fulfill the promise of what really is a great idea for a musical. Thankfully, the creators who live and work in the Twin Cities do have Nautilus as a resource. Perhaps productions like this one will feed their muse and inspire them to take things a step further so at future Fringes we see some truly original and compelling work that's up to the caliber of the performers who present it.

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