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‘What If’ is two plays in one; Paul Metsa’s 40th Anniversary Concert at the Parkway

What If
Courtesy of The Moving Company
Nathan Keepers and Sarah Agnew in “What If.”

The holidays overflow with entertainments. Most are there to make you feel good. You don’t have to think too hard about what you see or experience.

And then there’s “What If,” the new play from The Moving Company. Actually, two plays, linked by Shakespeare and starlings.

Part 1 is a beautiful and touching solo performance by Steven Epp. Part 2 is a rowdy, bawdy romp with Sarah Agnew and Nathan Keepers. The two parts are Melpomene and Thalia, tragedy and comedy, the traditional masks of theater. “What If,” at its core, is about theater, defined in Part 2 as “the king who carves out his own eyes in order to see the truth.”

Epp, Agnew and Keepers are all veterans of the storied Theatre de la Jeune Lune, as are director Dominique Serrand, costume designer Sonya Berlovitz and lighting designer Marcus Dillard. “What If” is a devised work created by Epp, Agnew, Keepers and Serrand.

The house lights are on when Epp enters the Lab Theater’s vast stage, wearing a backpack. “Theater is a rather lonely thing without an audience,” he says. “You agree to let us stand before you, dreaming wide awake … The essence of acting is to inhabit someone else’s life. It’s a great act of empathy.”

He reaches into the backpack, slips on a jacket and a pair of glasses, rumples his hair and becomes a Syrian refugee. A gentle, philosophical, Shakespeare-loving former anthropology professor, he has lived alone through the years-long destruction of his hometown, Aleppo, and survived the perilous journey to Paris. He now works at Notre Dame Cathedral, opening boxes of communion wafers, which he calls “Jesus cookies.”

We meet him on the night Notre Dame burns. He hides beneath a pew. (“It’s a habit of mine to hide, learned in Aleppo.”) He remembers seeing a photo of an 11-year-old American girl, standing alone and defiant on a roof floating down the Platte River during the 2019 Nebraska floods. Pushing back his hair with a headband, reaching under his sweater to release a plaid skirt, Epp becomes the girl.

He alternates between the two characters, which have at least one thing in common: Both are places they shouldn’t be, and wouldn’t be, if humans hadn’t screwed things up. Then he adds a third character: a murmuration of starlings. For that, he crosses his arms on his chest and flutters his fingers. By now, we’re so thoroughly under Epp’s spell that this simple gesture is all it takes.

He’s a man who has seen the worst of everything and quotes Shakespeare. And a girl who insisted “Because climate change, Dad!” when her father blamed the heavy rains on tolerance for homosexuals. And an immense and wheeling flock of birds saying “We are all connected.” It’s powerful and moving.

After intermission, Keepers and Agnew stride onto the stage, dressed identically. “Here we are, all of us together, doing the imagining! This is not part 1!” Keepers proclaims. It’s as if he and Agnew are making fun of the first part. They’re buffoons, hilarious and sometimes crude. “How do actors memorize all those lines?” they ask. “How do they do all that thinking and feeling? It’s exhausting!” And “What if we have a collective colonoscopy?”

They go back in time 200,000 years, grunting and trying to eat each other. Agnew explains, “We evolved, but all that animal stuff is still in the lizard brain at the back of our skull.” Their dream is “about that part of yourself you don’t want to see.” It’s about power and nationalism.

They become God, twining around each other. They create the heavens and the earth, and humans. They build themselves a luxury hotel with a golf course. They speak in terrible Russian accents that “won’t offend anyone.” Agnew becomes a cockroach, scooting and skittering across the floor, a creature that will live through anything. Seeing that the world is a mess, God suggests we “go back to when it was great again.”

But they also quote Shakespeare. They exhort us “to work together whether you like it or not.” They remind us again of the importance of theater – and take a couple of jabs at the big Christmas play going on nearby.

And we’re not quite through with the starlings.

If you see “What If,” you’ll want to think about it, and maybe talk with other people who have seen it. The Jeune Lune mystique and magic are very much alive in this group of actors. We’ve asked several people what they thought of Part 2 and what it said to them. Everyone’s response has been different.

Maybe the second part is there because we have to blame something or someone for the state we’re in. Maybe theater is there not only for distraction, but for direction.

“What If” continues Thursdays-Sundays through Dec. 29. FMI and tickets ($38/$32/$20).

The picks

Now on your devices: “Long Lost: An Investigative History Series” podcast. In 1951, three young boys went to play in Farview Park in north Minneapolis. They never returned and were never found. Today the case is one of the nation’s oldest active missing-child investigations. Local author Jack El-Hai wrote a book about it, “The Lost Brothers: A Family’s Decades-Long Search,” published in October by the University of Minnesota Press. Twin Cities PBS has created a true-crime podcast hosted by El-Hai, with new episodes available every Thursday – six in all. FMI, episodes, and subscription links.

Doc Woods and Ankita Ashrit in “The Ever and After.”
Photo by Charles Gorrill
Doc Woods and Ankita Ashrit in “The Ever and After.”
Friday through Sunday at the Crane Theater: “The Ever and After.” Fortune’s Fool’s “Dog Act” isn’t the only post-apocalyptic play in town. (And “What If” isn’t the only play with a cockroach.) Theatre Pro Rata is presenting the world premiere of local playwright Rachel Teagle’s “The Ever and After.” When a brainiac bug and his feral human ward discover a robotic woman in the ruins of civilization, they must put aside their differences to find the truth about this new world. Sofia Lindgren Galloway is the director. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($14-41 sliding scale at the door). Reserve by phone at 612-234-7135. Closes Sunday.

Saturday at Wing Young Huie’s Third Place Gallery: “Ricco & Sun Yun & Ed Bok Lee & DJ Manila Rice. It’s a party at Wing Young Huie’s place in Central. The occasion: a reading and celebration of L.A.-based writer Ricco Villanueva Siasoco’s debut collection of stories, “The Foley Artist.” From the Asian Review of Books: “[Nine] stories deftly give voice to the intersectional identities of women and men in the Filipino diaspora and queer community in America.” Also on the program: American Book Award winner Ed Bok Lee and Minnesota Book Award winner Sun Yung Shin. 3730 Chicago Ave. in Minneapolis. 7-9 p.m. Free.

Paul Metsa
Courtesy of the artist
Paul Metsa
Monday at the Parkway: Paul Metsa “Holiday on Ice Cubes” 40th Anniversary Concert. HuffPost called him “the other great folksinger from Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.” A fixture on Minnesota’s music scene for decades, eight-time Minnesota Music Awards winner, radio and TV host, author of “Blue Guitar Highway,” writer of the great American folk song “Jack Ruby in a Cavanagh Hat,” devoted dog lover and newly minted poet (he’ll release his first collection, “Alphabet Jazz,” at this show), Metsa will share the stage with guests including Cats Under the Stars, Sonny Earl and Master of Ceremonies Bobby Vandell. Expect some tender memories of Willie Walker, Metsa’s Thursday-night musical partner at Shaw’s neighborhood bar for eight years, who died on Nov. 19. This event will also be a benefit for a Northeast food shelf. 7-9 p.m. FMI and tickets ($20 advance, $25 door, $50 VIP).

Holiday pick: Free Songs of the Season Courtroom Concerts

Tomorrow (Thursday, Dec. 19): The Schubert Club’s popular and musically excellent Courtroom Concerts are usually held on Thursdays at noon in Landmark Center’s Courtroom 317. The holiday program has performed to overflow audiences for the past seven years. New this year, an evening performance has been added and will take place at the historic Central Presbyterian Church just a few blocks away. Curated by Abbie Betinis, featuring soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw, mezzo soprano Laura Betinis Healy, tenor Nicholas Chalmers and bass Timothy Takach, the program will feature winter songs and carols by more than a dozen Minnesota composers and songwriters. Both the daytime and evening concerts are free. 12 p.m. at Landmark Center, 7:30 p.m. at Central Presbyterian. FMI.

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