Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Prints" by Torch Theater Company at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage

This has been a most excellent week of theater. I saw five shows (four plays and one musical), and each was so different from the rest but so wonderful in its own unique way. I truly experienced the breadth and depth of the Twin Cities theater community this week, from a lovely and intimate two-person musical, to an intensely dramatic historical play, to a funny and poignant play about small town Minnesota, to a wildly inventive new fairy tale. And capping it off is Prints, a sharp and funny new play written by local actor John Middleton and presented by Torch Theater Company (their first production in over a year), brilliantly acted by the company of eight, "corrupted from a true story" about the kidnapping of Minnesota beer tycoon William Hamm in 1933.* I couldn't have asked for a better conclusion to this most excellent week of theater.

The story in Prints features a mishmash of facts from the true story of the Barker-Karpis gang, along with completely made up bits designed to tell an entertaining story. And it works. We view the kidnapping through the eyes of two reporters who are asked by the kidnapped man's daughter Pearl to help investigate. They soon decipher that it must be the work of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang, and work with a corrupt cop and the Hamm family to try to prove it and find Hamm. The FBI gets involved and applies the brand new "Silver Nitrate Method" to pull fingerprints off the ransom note (this part of the story is true). Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the stage, the gang is holding poor Mr. Hamm hostage and trying to figure out how they're going to get out of this mess.

The highlights are many and include:

  • The tone is pitch-perfect, as director Craig Johnson gets just the right mix of sharp humor and occasional darkness from his cast. Some audience members were laughing during the shooting scenes but I found them sad and scary.
  • Speaking of, Zach Curtis is truly formidable as the unstable gangster "Creepy" Karpis, and is the one dark element that anchors the comedy and gives real weight to this crime story, despite the silly shenanigans going on around him. There's nothing funny about Creepy (at least not that you would admit in his presence).
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Karen Wiese-Thompson cracked me up as the flighty socialite Mitzi Hamm with her every expression and gesture, and also brings a bit of pathos to the role of Ma Barker - a mother who loves her boys, even though those boys are gangsters.
  • Playwright John Middleton and Mo Perry share a witty banter and sly humor as the reporters, in a His Girl Friday sort of way.
  • Most of the cast play multiple roles, and slip easily and quickly back and forth between the different skins they inhabit, including Summer Hagen as Pearl, Creepy's girl, and FBI director Hoover; Casey Hoekstra as an uptight FBI agent and the nervous gangster Doc, who's on the receiving end of much of Creepy's brutality; Ari Hoptman as everybody's favorite bartender, the kidnapped man with a bag over his head, and a stand-up comic with jokes so bad they're funny; and Sam Landman as the corrupt Minnesota cop and one of the Barker boys. Just really beautiful and interesting and funny performances by everyone in every role.
  • The writing is really fantastic - sharp and tight, with one particularly clever scene featuring two interrelated and overlapping interrogations by the two reporters.
  • I love the range of accents, from gangsters who talk like we think gangsters talked, to women who talk like women in old movies, to Mitzi's occasionally returning German accent, to the very Minnesotan cop.
  • The set by Michael Hoover (who I swear is the busiest set designer in the Cities) is a perfect backdrop. A brick wall with several doors, and a Hamm's label functioning as a scree upon which videos are played and behind which shadowed scenes take place. (Although the multiple levels seemed to be a bit tricky for the cast to negotiate as they tripped more than once, but never breaking character for a moment so that the stumbles almost seemed planned.)
  • Finally, the period costumes (by John Woskoff) look pretty snazzy and help differentiate the multiple characters.

Welcome back Torch Theater Company, don't be gone so long next time! This is a great example of why the Twin Cities theater community is so stellar - a new play by a local playwright, an ensemble of individual talents who work well together, and an all around high quality production. Playing now through March 8 at the Minneapolis Theater Garage, with discount tickets available on Goldstar.

*This is not the first show I've seen on this topic, see also History Theatre's Capital Crimes: The St. Paul Gangster Musical.