“This isn’t the last time we’re all going to see each other. Right?”
A group of college friends gather one last time on the eve of graduation to participate in a shared ritual. The fantasy series of books they all grew up reading has just published its final volume. So, per the tradition that has bonded them through their college years, they dress up as their favorite character, wait in line all night to get a copy of the book, and then trek to a family cabin to hole up and read it to one another. The problem is, the book’s author has warned the public that one of the characters will meet with tragedy. None of the friends is prepared to witness the death of their superhero alter ego. The prospect of fictional death fills many of them with foreboding about their own fates.
Playwright Sheri Wilner takes what could have been either maudlin or melodramatic, or just a Harry Potter rip-off, and instead gives us “The End.” “The End” is a nice balance of reality and fantasy. It isn’t overly sentimental nor is it all gloom and doom. Director Jackson Gay and the ensemble of actors get the tone just right. Something momentous is about to happen to all these people, but it’s not the end of the world. The end of “a” world perhaps. But life will continue. By the end, the audience gets a clear picture of all of these characters individually, and as a group. They definitely have the skills needed to face life, with or without each other. Something will be lost, but the world of possibilities before them isn’t so scary. Of course they have to face the loss, and the fear, to get to that place. And it’s a lot of fun to watch them grapple with it, on the page and off.
I sort of wish the program had everyone’s superhero names as well because they were a lot of fun, and I neglected to jot them down. Wilner’s book within a play is a theatrical device that she uses very well. This is augmented by the fact that each of the ensemble clue the audience in on their particular superhero’s backstory as each of them writes to the author of the book to make the case for their alter ego’s survival. These individual spotlight meditations, which the play drops in and out of at decidedly comic moments, also reveal a great deal about the character of the college students themselves, and their fears about the future. As each person unfolds before us, the group dynamic the play returns to becomes richer and fuller. It’s a deceptively simple structure, and could have been over or underdone. But they all got it just right.
Franklin (Grant Chapman), a dancer in female superhero drag, lives boldly, like his alter ego, a young woman who can control the elements of nature. He refuses to let anyone deter him from his dreams, including his parents. Because of this he hounds his friend Maddy (Ashley Marie Peterson), since she gave up studying dance to focus on medicine. Maddy is coming to grips with the fact that she’s just not talented enough, and trying to find something else she cares about. She doesn’t appreciate being accused of selling out, or abandoning her dream. Edie (Nicole Rodenburg) is a bundle of nerves about change approaching on all fronts way too fast for her liking. Felix (Rolando Martinez) secretly hates the damn books and wishes it all were over, except for the fact that this bizarre book group helps him stay close to someone he cares deeply about – someone who is dating someone else, and has no clue about the depth of his real feelings. The irony of the fact that his superhero is empathic and can read minds isn’t lost on poor Felix. Maria (Elizabeth Stahlmann) is worried over impending surgery, due to be performed right after graduation. The surgery can insure her health, but may cost her the one thing she values most, her singing voice. Maria’s boyfriend Jack (Christopher Peltier) wishes he could stop time like his superhero doppelganger – “one foot out the door in the real world, one foot still in the dorm room, in shoes I didn’t have to pay for.” He worries that his current level of popularity can’t last, that he’ll be easily forgotten, that he won’t be enough of a man for his girlfriend, whose life and possibilities seem so much larger than his own. So he brings the beer. “They always miss the person who brings the beer.”
“The End” could have been just a story about a bunch of privileged white kids and wannabe artists who don’t know how good they have it. If it had been, it would have worked my last nerve. But it turns out these nearly college graduates know exactly how good they have it. They know how tenuous it all is. The fact that they do appreciate it, that they don’t take it for granted, is one of the play’s main charms. Their biggest fear isn’t selfish. Their biggest fear is that they’ll lose each other. They know this fear is very likely to be realized. They wonder what they’ll do without the emotional safety net that each of them provided for and received from the others. For anyone who’s lost a friend to distance or time or neglect, the moment these characters are grappling with is extremely poignant, even if they are grappling with it in capes and spandex. This, of course, is the other main charm of the play – the fact that it refuses to take itself too seriously. But it always laughs with, never at, its characters.
The performances are all deeply felt, and completely disarming. You can’t help liking these characters, and these actors. To use the word adorable in describing this play sounds dismissive, but it’s meant as a compliment. You just want to take the whole production and give it a hug. Then, of course, you sit down, and discover the production has placed a whoopee cushion on your seat. Best not to take anything, including your role as an audience member, too seriously.
Very Highly Recommended
“The End” has only three more performances before it closes this weekend - Friday, April 25 at 7:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday, April
26 and 27 at 1pm (but I believe Sunday’s performance may already be sold out). The plays are paired up in different combinations on Thursday through Saturday, and all three play on Sunday. Tickets are $10, or $7 for students and seniors. Reservations and more information at www.guthrietheater.com or by calling 612-377-2224. Performances are in the Dowling Studio on the 9th floor of the new Guthrie theater complex at 818 South 2nd Street in Minneapolis.