Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
As Life's Parade begins, we see a late middle-aged woman named Cary (Miriam Must) sitting in a straight-back chair at the far back of Red Eye's expansive stage. She is slumped over an old-style radio that rests on the table beside her. Fractured bits of broadcasts, strings of word, tinny music and static provide an incoherent soundtrack. Her hair is coiffed as if for a special function, every hair in place. She wears a gold and black calf-length gown and a string of pearls, and her face holds an expression of utter contempt for herself. Shortly, Cary is joined by the play's other five cast members, who move in carefully calibrated but undecipherable patterns, producing random noises and bits of conversation until Cary joins the others and they assume a marching formation.
After a while, Cary reveals that she is divorced. She has trouble saying it, as if she isn't so sure she should tell us. Her discomfort is not so much about being divorced, but that her answer to the question everyone asks once they know"Why? What happened, if you don't mind my asking?"does not make for a good story. And people expect a good story, they want a good story, they love good stories. They want a divorce to be the climax of a melodrama with outsize emotions and shocking betrayals. The ensemble offer bits of such stories, trying to one-up one another, leaving a trail of stock phrases.
Cary admits that she is prone to eavesdropping on stories told in public places. Cast members Gretchen Grunzke and Katherine Kupiecki portray their side of conversations told during first or second dates, with Gretchen being primarily a storytellershe hedges about telling her date her story because it is her "best story," and if she tells it now, everything else will be downhillwhile Katherine, in spite of trying to insert her own ideas, is primarily on the receiving end of the story. In both cases, their part in the conversation makes it clear what their companion is saying. All the while, Cary is listening and gloating, like a hunter who bagged a rare species.
Another cast member, Teresa Mock, repeatedly portrays the start of a story that you know will be juicy: "I was a lady, and you were beneath my station. But..." and the divergent path that follows each "but" promises something torrid and heartbreaking.
Where does this compulsion for the incidents of our lives to be high drama come from? In answer, we are shown three movie previews from actual movies that drip with emotions: Written on the Wind (1956), The Magnificent Obsession (1954), and All That Heaven Allows (1955). All three were directed by Douglas Sirk, known for his extravagant sagas of impossible love, scandalous couplings, and broken hearts told with brash colors and soaring soundtracks. Also, all three movies starred Rock Hudson, his era's epitome of well-groomed good looks and suave masculinity, using all his strength to contain his desires. In private, Hudson led the life of a promiscuous but closeted homosexual. Yes, Hollywood gave us huge stories, barely contained within their cinemascope screens, but they were utterly false. By the way, from the jaded vantage point of 2017, the trailers are hilarious.
Bits of a would-be plot cross-hatch Cary's musings. She is modeling for Rex (Kevin McLaughlin), an insecure artist who can't believe such a gorgeous creature would honor him with her visage. Ron (Ricardo Beaird) is a manly young gardener who she plots to seduce with a glass of lemonade and demure glances. There are other cultural expressions of Eisenhower-era desire, with performances of "Young Love" and "Angel Baby" that start out all doo-wop but go somewhere else. The music sounds intentionally tinny, as if we are hearing warped 45 rpm records played on a low-tech rec-room phonograph.
We are pretty certain that all of this is in Cary's mind. Pretty sure, but not certain, as playwright Sherman has blurred the lines a bit between what must be imagined, what must be real, and what can go either way. When we finally find out the truth about Cary's divorce, from her, it is not one of brazen passion shaded in Technicolor strokes. It is a simple, but painful, story that rings true. Compared to all of the puffed up emotional displays that precede it, it is deeply affecting.
Miriam Must is sensational as Cary. Her transitions from coy to depressive to fun-loving to angry to prim flick back and forth like changing TV channels. The rest of the cast are all swell, taking a spotlight here and there between precision ensemble work. Gretchen Grunzke especially shines as an aspiring actress making the most of her life stories. The women are given more to do than the men, but each of them carry their part of the parade well.
Steve Busa is credited with conceiving Life's Parade and one wonders exactly what he had in mind, not because his concept is not a wonderful ideait is!but because the show is so intimate, almost painfully so. It takes a special kind of vision to make an idea so small into a finished work so large. Liz Josheff Busa's costumes look like primo vintage store finds: cocktail dresses with flared skirts for the women; sport coats, slacks and ties for the men; and Cary's dark and heavy gown. Ms. Busa also designed the mostly bare set and the projections, which add considerable texture to the play. Light and sound work both contribute to the feeling of a disassociated state, with only fleeting connections to reality.
Life's Parade is a sweet departure from the "big themed" work that is more often mounted. Of course it is vital that the arts address the big themes in society, but the fact that major and divisive shifts in the public arena are underway doesn't erase the fact that we still each have our small, private lives. As dramatic fare, Life's Parade is not a storm-trooping march down broad boulevards, but a gentle cadence across the backroad country of our hearts. It is a parade worth cheering for.
Life's Parade continues through October 29, 2017, at the Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th Street, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $10.00 - $20.00, Students with ID - $8.00. For tickets call 612-870-0309 or go to redeyetheater.org.
Conceived and directed by: Steve Busa; Writer: Katharine Sherman; Choreography: Dolo McComb; Set, Costume and Projection Design: Liz Josheff Busa; Lighting Designer: Søren Olsen; Sound Design: Skyler Nowinski; Stage Manager: Kundan Kumar; Assistant Stage Manager: Sakshi Singh
Cast: Ricardo Beaird (Ron), Gretchen Grunzke (ensemble), Katherine Kupiecki (ensemble) Kevin McLaughlin (Rex), Teresa Mock (ensemble), and Miriam Must (Cary).