Thursday, February 13, 2014

"The Pavilion" at Yellow Tree Theatre

This is the way the play The Pavilion by Minnesota playwright Craig Wright begins:
This is the way the universe begins. A raindrop (that isn't really a raindrop) drops, like a word, "rain" drops, into a pool (that isn't really a pool, more like a pool of listening minds), and tiny waves circle out in an elegant decelerating procession, -cession, -cession. Then, after a time, the pool of listening minds grows still once more.
Now, but backwards, this is the way the universe begins: the still pool of listening minds, the sudden shrinking circles dissolving at the center, conserving at the center until boom, sloop!, up goes the droplet, up towards the voice that raindrops words, up towards the voice and it hangs in the air — remember it there — because that’s the way the universe begins. A little pavilion. A momentary sphere. A word made of stars, dancing.
The play is filled with beautiful, poetic, profound, airy language such as this, interspersed with very real and grounded scenes of average humans at their 20-year high school reunion. The story itself is not very original (in life or literature) - high school girl gets pregnant, boy leaves her to deal with it alone, forever changing both of their lives. The original thing about this Pulitzer Prize nominated play is that this very common idea is used as the seed to explore themes of time, regret, happiness, letting go of the past, and second chances. It's funny and earthy at the same time that it's deep and philosophical. The Pavilion is another great choice by Yellow Tree Theatre - it shines on their intimate and homey stage.

Pine City class of 1977's "cutest couple," Kari and Peter, reunite at their 20-year reunion, and it's not a happy reunion. She's still deeply hurt and angry that he left her when she got pregnant, a situation that isn't soothed at all by his deep regret. Unfortunately neither of them have been able to leave this unhappy incident behind them; she is trapped in an unhappy marriage and he is dating a 23-year-old because she's too young to realize how messed up he is. They begin the evening by trying to avoid each other, but by the night's end they have put it all out there. A narrator tells us about this couple and where they fall in the creation of the universe. There is much fourth wall breaking, as the narrator says things like "this is a play about time," calls for lighting and sound from the crew, and speaks directly to the audience. At one point the characters in the story, mostly oblivious to his presence, speak directly to the narrator. It's a really clever construction and an innovative way to tell a story.

Bonni Allen, Jason Peterson, and Michael Lee
Yellow Tree co-founder Jason Peterson as the narrator speaks these beautiful words with clarity and meaning. He also has the fun of playing multiple characters at the reunion who function as sounding boards for our two main characters. Bonni Allen, whom I've previously only seen in musical comedies, proves that she's a great dramatic actor too as she brings life to the conflicted Kari. Michael Lee is earnest and sincere in Peter's love for Kari. Local actor Terry Hempleman (who starred with Jason in the gripping Fool for Love at the Jungle last fall) does a beautiful job directing the piece.

At intermission I had a discussion with my friends about who to side with. There's no question that Peter did Kari a great wrong, but she's been holding on to the grudge for 20 years. We agreed that she needs to find a way to get over it and let it go for her own sake, not his. Whether or not he deserves her forgiveness, she deserves to forgive him and be at peace about it. The play doesn't wrap things up so neatly. It's an ambiguous ending, as the evening ends and the play fades away into starlight, with no clear direction about what happens next. It's one of those plays that's so full, I wish I could see it again.

The set (designed by Jeffrey Petersen) couldn't be more simple - a large square wooden dock with the word "PAVILION" in lights behind it, the stage empty except for a few crates. But the language is so specific that the imagination can easily fill in the details so that you can almost feel the wind off the water and smell the fresh air. The lighting (by Courtney Schmitz Watson) creates some really lovely effects, from the blue light under the dock to the stars overhead.

Minnesota playwright Craig Wright (who has also written for such TV shows as Six Feet Under and Lost, and graduated from my alma mater) has set this play (and several others) in Pine City, and the play is filled with Minnesota references. The characters casually drop many Minnesota place names, and he has perfectly captured the way that out-staters talk about "the Cities." It's great to see the work of Minnesota artists represented on our stages, especially a play like this that's so 
funny, bittersweet, and wistful. (Playing now through March 2 at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo.)

Because the language is so beautiful, I'll leave you with another quote from the play:

At every single moment, the whole creation is beginning again, stretching the tent of the present moment to bursting. And the waves that push up through the oceans, and the waves that push up through the stars; and the waves that push upwards through history are the same waves that push up through us. And so we have to say yes to time, even though it means speeding forward into memory; forgetfulness; and oblivion. Say "no" to time; hold on to what you were or what she was; hold onto the past, even out of love... and I swear it will tear you to shreds. This universe will tear you to shreds.