Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Hatchet Lady
Walking Shadow Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Chess, Blithe Spirit and Khephra: A Hip Hop Holiday Story


Maren Ward
Photo by Amy Rummenie
Stop and think: what do you know about Carry Nation? Before this week I knew only that around the dawn of the 20th century she waged a crusade against consumption of alcohol, rabidly attacking saloons with a hatchet. I knew that her trail of broken whiskey bottles primarily passed through Missouri and Kansas. From photos, I knew that she had a large, stocky build—and was a woman not to be taken lightly, even without giving her the benefit of a hatchet. That about summed up my pool of knowledge about Ms. Nation.

Walking Shadow Theatre Company's production of Savannah Reich's play Hatchet Lady: Carry Nation, Angel of Destruction promises to lift the veil over this historic figure, placing her eccentricities in the context of 21st century feminism, with a rock music score to assure we know she is "one of us". The play informs us that Carry Nation's first husband, Charlie, was an alcoholic who left her just as their daughter, Charlien, was born—and who died a year later. This no doubt was a factor in her intense opposition to drinking. Her second marriage was devoid of passion: her passion was funneled into her crusade. She believed God spoke to her, telling her to "go to Kiowa (Kansas)" and "I will stand by you." She obeyed that command and in Kiowa vandalized her first saloon.

We learn a great deal more about an invented character, Frances Glen, author of popular biographies of women who broke boundaries in male-dominated fields, such as Amelia Earhart and Rosalind Franklin. She is a final chapter away from completing her biography of Carry Nation, in which she interprets the prohibitionist as a feminist. After all, it was primarily men who were getting drunk, then going home where they proceeded to abuse and batter their wives and children. Was she not campaigning for the safety and dignity of women? There is an argument to be made—except, then, Frances has an emotional meltdown in the middle of a public radio interview with a host named Terry (try not thinking about Terry Gross, the host of NPR's "Fresh Air"). Suddenly, Frances cannot explain why she wrote her book or how she feels about Carry Nation.

Back at home, Frances continues to disassemble while taking swigs of booze from a bottle, when a chirpy intern from her publisher arrives to check up on her. Frances launches into a discourse on the meaninglessness of all she has ever done, and Emily, the intern, tries to bring Frances around to the business of finishing her final chapter. From this point, the play leapfrogs back and forth between Terry interviewing the ghosts of Nation's first husband Charlie (who offers a country-western tune), their daughter Charlien, and Carry herself; the ongoing dialogue between Frances and Emily; and hard rock anthems. Emily admits to a secret ambition far afield from interning for a publisher, while Frances states she wants to be like the great women she writes about, not be the woman who writes about them. She intones John Brown, who like Carry, received his orders from God. She laments the absence of so clear a direction in her own life, and that felt absence transmutes into indignity and rage. A trio of snorting wild horses are also on hand that seem meant to add to Carry Nation's mythology.

Hatchet Lady is a new play, having its initial run earlier this year in Chicago. It is brimming with imagination, dry wit, and raw energy. What is not present in abundance is cohesion in terms of what we are to take away from the play, other than the native impulse to commit violence. Carry is moved to violent actions through the word of God, while Frances is tempted toward violence by the lack of any such connection. Where lies the middle ground by which humans may live at peace with themselves, to say nothing of peace among one another? If it exists, you would not know so from Reich's play. The sentiment that all of us have something that needs to be smashed may touch a secret longing most of us have had to destroy a workplace from which we were let go, a romantic partner who broke things off, a family for who we were never good enough, or an elected official who embodies all we despise. But giving free rein to that impulse hardly seems like a good model for living life fully.

Though Hatchet Lady does not hold together as a play, it completely engages its audience as a performance piece. Director John Heimbuch keeps all of the elements moving briskly, each daring to collapse like the circus performer twirling stacks of plates balanced on sticks held up on both hands and the top of his head. We can't take our eyes off the feat, but part of the fun is anticipating a crash. Heimbuch is given a tremendous boost by Maren Ward's performance as both Frances and Carry. Ward conveys an every-person quality that makes Frances' existential crisis seem as normal as the produce aisle, but when she flares up to display Carry's passion, you want to back away. She is funny without saying or doing anything funny, the way everyday life can be funny if you look at it in a detached way.

Maureen O'Malley is a newcomer on stage who makes a swell impression, hilarious as Emily the intern. She reveals the exotic yearnings we know lie within the heart of every too sweet and polite intern we've ever met. Megan Burns perfectly captures the soft but authoritative tone of a public radio talk show host. Chelsea Newhard is winning as the daughter Charlien, an aloof outer crust with a bitter cream filling, but she is a bit undefined as Charlie, alcoholic husband #1, lacking the vigor to convince us that a force like Carry would ever have fallen for him.

The music is by music director Luc Parker and is performed by a quartet of rock musicians, all women. The songs do rock, with lyrics that reinforce the points of view of characters at different times, and well played by the band—with Britt Collis especially shining on guitar—but none of them are particularly memorable. What they add to the show is a ratcheting up of the already high level of energy each time a song blares out. Hatchet Lady is one continuous surge of intensity from start to cataclysmic finish. Staged at the Red Eye Theater, the show is pushed way back to a fraction of the usual performance space, and the audience brought in close to the action, so that it feels more like a club setting than a theater, adding even more to the intensity in the room.

The audience I saw Hatchet Lady—a near full house—was notably younger than most Twin Cities theater crowds, and vocally enjoying the show immensely—the black humor, the music, the way the whole enterprise plays fast and loose with convention. I was admiring the work's audacity and Maren War's full tilt performance, but there clearly is an audience keen on Hatchet Lady in ways that elude me. Which is what makes the diversity of our theater scene such a treasurer.

Hatchet Lady: Carry Nation, Angel of Destruction, a Walking Shadow Theatre Company production, continues through December 16, 2017, at the Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: advance sale - $22.00, $20.00 seniors; at the Door: $26.00, $24.00 seniors; $15.00 students; $18.00 for MN Fringe button holders at select performances; limited number of $10.00 Economic Accessibility Tickets (advance sale only). Call 612-375-0300 or go to walkingshadowcompany.org.

Writer: Savanah Reich; Director: John Heimbuch; Composer/Music Director: Luc Parker; Set Design and Technical Director: Steve Kath; Costume Designer: Andrea Gross; Lighting Designer: Jesse Cogswell; Sound Engineer: Isabel Patt; Props Designer: Sarah Holmberg; Violence and Movement Consultant: Annie Enneking; Stage Manager: Rachel Lantow; Production Manager: David Pisa; Assistant Director: Sarah Lovell; Assistant Stage Manager: Mathilda Elrod.

Cast: Megan Burns (Terry), Chelsie Newhard (Charlie/Charlien), Maureen O'Malley (Emily), Maren Ward (Frances/Carry Nation).


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