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Frank Theatre delivers a powerful punch; ‘Ride the Cyclone’ at the Jungle

Frank’s artistic director, Wendy Knox, has paired “Here We Go” with “Escaped Alone” for an evening of two one-acts.

Charla Marie Bailey and Patrick Bailey in a scene from "Here We Go."
Charla Marie Bailey and Patrick Bailey in a scene from "Here We Go."
Photo by Tony Nelson

On two Twin Cities stages last week, we saw dead people: in Frank Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s “Here We Go” and at the Jungle in Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell’s brand-new musical, “Ride the Cyclone.”

Same general topic – the great mystery of non-being; what Robin Williams called “nature’s way of saying ‘Your table is ready’” – but diametrically different approaches.

Frank Theatre’s ‘Here We Go’ and ‘Escaped Alone’

“Here We Go” is told in three scenes, in reverse order. First, we’re at a party after a funeral, where five women – portrayed by Maria Asp, Charla Marie Bailey, Barbra Berlovitz, Janis Hardy and Cheryl Willis – share memories and gossip about an unnamed man who has died. Each also speaks directly to the audience. (We’re avoiding spoilers here.)

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In the next scene, we’re with a man (Patrick Bailey) immediately after his death. As he reviews everything he has learned about the afterlife from mythology and religion, trying to orient himself, he finds himself in different places: Egypt, weighing his heart against a feather; Valhalla with drunk and roaring Vikings; crossing the Styx with Charon.

Knowing he’s dead, he wishes he could live his life over and better. Because “most of the time I hardly noticed it going by.”

The second scene raises interesting questions. What if the afterlife is whatever we believe it is? As if there’s an endless menu of options. Early on, the man wonders aloud, “Is this the pearly gates? Yes, look, actual pearls, and that’s St. Peter, beard, key … but I don’t believe anything like … and it’s gone.” Oops. Should’ve believed?

The third scene is wordless. A caregiver (Charla Marie Bailey) slowly and patiently helps a dying man (Patrick Bailey) dress and undress. Except for the clatter of his walker, and background noises that tell us we’re in a nursing home, it’s completely quiet. The monotony and tedium stretch nearly to the breaking point. The night we were there, the audience barely breathed. This wasn’t mythology, religion or fiction. It was reality, staring us in the face.

Frank’s artistic director, Wendy Knox, has paired “Here We Go” with Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” for an evening of two compelling one-acts, each about an hour. “Escaped Alone” is first. We might be seeing dead people in that play, too. We’re not entirely sure. But if they’re not dead now, they will be before too long, whether from age – all four characters are in their ’70s – or the apocalypse, which either has come or is imminent.

Escaped Alone
Photo by Tony Nelson
Cheryl Willis, Barbra Berlovitz, Janis Hardy, Maria Asp in a scene from "Escaped Alone."
The title is drawn from the Book of Job and “Moby Dick”: “I am escaped alone to tell thee.” Three women – Sally (Berlovitz), Vi (Asp) and Lena (Hardy) – have gathered in Sally’s garden for tea and talk. A fourth, Mrs. Jarrett (Willis), walks by, recognizes the women and joins the group.

Their conversation overlaps, intersects, interrupts and flows. The talk is about trivial matters, and serious, and speculative: shops that have closed, parallel universes, a television series, how many zeroes in a billion. We learn that Lena doesn’t like to leave the house, that Vi spent time in prison, that Sally is afraid of cats.

Mrs. Jarrett is the one who has “escaped alone to tell thee.” Like the ancient Greek oracle, she brings news, and it’s terrifying. At the end of each short scene, the focus shifts to her, and she describes a series of horrific events. Landslides, fires, torrential rains, deliberate acts of cruelty and indifference, chemical poisonings, disease, evacuations, mutations. The solidification of privilege: “Gas masks were available on the NHS with a three-month waiting time and privately in a range of colors.” The pervasiveness of media: “Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking.”

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When Mrs. Jarrett proclaims doom and gloom, the other women don’t or can’t hear. After each of her monologues, they resume their conversation. Are they in a bubble? Is the play someone’s dream? At one point, the four women join in singing the Crystals’ 1963 hit “Da Doo Ron Ron.”

Together the two Churchill plays, surreal as they are, make for a powerful punch of an evening. And we’re reminded that Wendy Knox does not mess around. This daring double-header launches Frank’s 31st season. It’s at the Gremlin Thursdays through Sundays this week and next. FMI and tickets ($30/25). Ends Sept. 29.

‘Ride the Cyclone’ at the Jungle

At the Jungle, the dead are a half-dozen high-school students from a small Canadian town named Uranium. Members of a chamber choir, wearing their school uniforms, they are killed in a roller-coaster accident early on. By then, we have heard a headless soprano sing, met a mechanical fortune-teller named Karnak (the marvelous Jim Lichtscheidl, who also choreographed the show) and seen a giant rat play a guitar.

Directed by Sarah Rasmussen, with music direction by Mark Christine,“Ride the Cyclone” is so new it hasn’t even been published yet. Rasmussen saw it in New York and talked the writers into letting the Jungle produce it here. The Jungle is the only theater in the United States allowed to stage it this year. It’s hilarious and irreverent, and it moves at the pace of a roller coaster speeding downhill.

Karnak tells the confused dead kids that one of them will be allowed to return to the living – but only one. Everyone else must unanimously agree on which one. At the start, that seems unlikely, because they couldn’t be more different.

Ocean (Shinah Brashears) is school president and a straight-A student, smug and selfish and cruel, and always ready with a rousing cliché (“Democracy rocks!”). Constance (Gabrielle Dominique) is Ocean’s loyal sidekick, a girl with a secret, eager to please. Mischa (Michael Hanna) is a strutting Ukrainian bad boy, engaged to a girl back home.

"Ride the Cyclone" cast members, from left to right: Shinah Brashears, Josh Zwick, Jordan M. Leggett, Michael Hanna and Gabrielle Dominique.
Photo by Dan Norman
"Ride the Cyclone" cast members, from left to right: Shinah Brashears, Josh Zwick, Jordan M. Leggett, Michael Hanna and Gabrielle Dominique.
Noel (Josh Zwick) is an aspiring poet laureate and the only gay man in a small rural high school. Ricky (Jordan M. Leggett) was born with a rare degenerative disease that put him on crutches and left him unable to speak. Now that he’s dead, his disabilities have vanished. “Jane Doe” (Becca Hart) is more marionette than human. No one knows her name because her body was found without a head. She creeps people out, especially Constance.

For much of the musical, everyone tries to convince everyone else they’re the one who deserves to be saved. Backed by a live band that calls itself “Virgil and the Underworld,” they sing for their lives. Their songs are funny, outrageous, occasionally obscene, and once or twice, a bit too long. We get to know the characters and wonder – whom would we vote for? Dying has made them all better people.

Hart and Hannah don’t steal the show – everyone in the cast is strong – but they’re the ones you’re likely to remember most. Both have impressive theater résumés, though Hart has built hers more recently, popping out of St. Olaf College and onto stages across the Twin Cities. You get the feeling she would try anything. Wait until you see (and hear) her sing while spinning like a pinwheel.

“Ride the Cyclone” launches the Jungle’s 29th season and its fourth with Sarah Rasmussen as artistic director. Rasmussen has reinvented the Twin Cities institution she took over when founder Bain Boehlke retired. The small Lyn-Lake theater only looks like a place where you’d go to see sweet, harmless old plays. It’s crackling with energy and ideas. Tuesdays through Sundays. FMI and tickets ($40-50). Ends Oct. 20.