Thursday, January 23, 2014

"Radio Man" by the History Theatre at Minnesota History Center

The final installment of what has been an excellent new works series sponsored by the History Theatre is Radio Man, by Minnesota’s own radio man Garrison Keillor. In case you've been living under a rock for the past 40 years, Garrison is the creator/writer/host of a radio variety show called A Prairie Home Companion. This 40-year Minnesota institution has spun off countless books, CDs, DVDs, a movie (for which I was a never-seen extra), and now - a play. I admit I'm biased because I love Prairie Home in all of its form, so I can't objectively view it as simply a play, as someone who's unfamiliar with the show would. Having said that, I found it to be another great way to experience the truly delightful world of A Prairie Home Companion.

Radio Man is like watching an episode of APHC play out on stage, with the addition of glimpses into the back-stage goings-on, as well as musings about the host's childhood. Led by a very familiar seeming host, we meet other familiar characters such as cowboys Dusty and Lefty and private eye Guy Noir. The host's child self also appears onstage, telling stories about the origin of his love of radio and his desire to live and work in that world. The "Lake Wobegon" story about the death of Byron Tolefson blends into the real life of the play as the ghost of Byron appears and ponders the meaning of life and death. In addition, the host is confronted by the station manager, his sister, and a woman from his past. Over the course of one evening and one episode of this ongoing radio show, the host experiences something much more - an existential rumination on life itself.

Once again, an extremely professional and talented cast of actors breathes life into the written words. Pearce Bunting plays the host, with a spot-on Garrison Keillor impression. From the red socks and the glasses, to the way he holds his hand to his face while talking, to the shuffling dance as he's taken by the music. The adorable Noah Deets plays the host's 10-year-old self, with remarkable maturity and ability in this unusual format for someone so young. Various characters real and imagined are portrayed by Jon Andrew Hegge, Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, Jake Endres, Summer Hagen, and the dryly hilarious Angela Timberman. Of course APHC would not be complete without music, and there's much of that here, successfully woven into the story in the form of jingles and performances by guests (with musical direction by Andrew Cooke).

In the post-show discussion (a lovely feature of Raw Stages that allows the audience to share feedback with the creators), Pearce was asked what it felt like to play a real person who was sitting in the room. Pearce responded that Garrison's words resonate with so many of us because he's telling our story, so in a way he's in all of us, or all of us are in him. He said if he continues in the role (which I sincerely hope he does), the trick will be to find a little bit more of himself in the character and less of Garrison. A few other people pointed out that the ending went on a little too long. I agree with that, but after a little tightening and restructuring (Garrison was busily taking notes throughout the reading), this has the potential to be a charming play about a familiar and beloved Minnesota institution. I consider Garrison to be the Mark Twain of our generation, a folksy humorist telling stories of Americana that ring true. It's lovely to hear that voice coming from a theater stage through the mouths of actors, and to experience the wonderfully quirky world of A Prairie Home Companion in a theatrical format.

This was my first time attending History Theatre's annual Raw Stages festival, and I enjoyed it so much and was very impressed by the creators and actors putting together such professional and entertaining readings in such a short time. Each one of the four works presented is so different, showcasing great variety in the history of Minnesota and in its theater. I hope to see each one of them further developed and given a full production. (Read about all four plays here.)