They’re small works with big hearts: five 10-minute playlets by a passel of Twin Cities writers that respond to the anger and dissonances revealed by last fall’s election.
But far from being polemical, these deft pieces, packaged as “The Great Divide,” which premiered Wednesday at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis, use small situations to illustrate the search for understanding in a divided nation.
Things kick off with “In Case of a Sudden Loss of Cabin Pressure” by James A. Williams. Two men, one from the big city, the other from a small town, meet randomly in a gym sauna. As it opens, actor Mikell Sapp sits alone, bobbing to Miles Davis in his headphones. In walks a guy (Ricardo Vazquez) who sits a little too close at first. After their initial awkwardness, they get to talking, and start making assumptions about each other — thoughts they share with the audience. Vazquez offers to tell a joke about camels, and Sapp gets fearful. He assumes it will be an ethnic joke about Arabs, which will lead to jokes about the N-word.
But the joke turns out to be innocuous, and the men slowly develop a rapport. It is subtle but clever stuff, acted with honesty and heart under the deft direction of Ellen Fenster.
Fenster stages the five pieces in a stars-and-stripes-themed environment by designer Kellie Larson. DJ Chamun spins supple atmospheric music between the vignettes, which employ an ensemble of four actors as various characters.
There’s humor and wit in all of the works, including, surprisingly, in Katie Ka Vang’s “Who’s Payin’,” about a hospitalized young woman (Audrey Park) who learns she has cancer. Every time a staffer tells her something, it is followed by an announcement over the public address system about the actual cost of the procedure, or medicine, or meal — signaling she is regarded more as a consumer than a patient.
In Christina Ham’s “The Fourth,” neighbors gather to watch fireworks, and bring their disparate stories to the fore, with Tracey Maloney playing a trenchant white woman. In Alan Berks’ “Swallow,” two wine-swilling couples discover things about themselves at a dinner party. And “I Hate to Burst Your Bubble” is a dreamy poem by Benjamin Benne that includes the actual blowing of bubbles.
At the end of Wednesday’s performance, most of the audience lingered, hoping for a post-show discussion (there’s one after every performance, save opening night). These playlets, small put potent, whet the appetite for conversation. The shows point to our hunger for more interpersonal connection as we grapple with what it means to be citizens of a nation built on contradictions and utopian dreams.
The Great Divide: Plays for a Broken Nation
Who: By Christina M. Ham, Benjamin Benne, Alan Berks, Katie Ka Vang and James A. Williams. Directed by Ellen Fenster.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends April 30.
Where: Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.