Tuesday, December 16, 2014

"The Longest Night" at Open Eye Figure Theatre

There's one holiday that no one can escape at this time of the year, at least not those who live as far from the equator as we do here in Minnesota. And that is the solstice, the longest night of the year. It is a holiday that predates Christianity by millennia, a time when our ancient ancestors wondered if the sun would return from it's long sleep, and celebrated when it did. These solstice celebrations form the basis of modern holiday celebrations in many diverse cultures; they all begin with this simple fact of nature. Right now, here in Minnesota, we have less than nine hours of daylight, and it's decreasing every day. But soon, after December 21, that will turn around and the days will begin to lengthen to their summer height. What better reason to celebrate is there than that? The wonderfully talented local music-theater artist Bradley Greenwald has created a one-man show around this idea, and it's completely delightful. Accompanied by Sonja Thompson on the piano (and himself on the baritone), he regales the audience with songs, stories, and poems of the solstice, this winter season that we're right in the middle of. Part science lesson (complete with visual aids), part history, part mystical spirituality, The Longest Night is the loveliest of celebrations of the season.

Don't expect to hear the usual holiday songs, the ones repeated on endless repeat on radio stations and in the mall. I did not recognize more than a few songs, but they are all perfectly appropriate to the theme. From Carole King's "So Far Away" (the sun is so far away at this time of the year!), to "The Cold Song" from the opera King Arthur, to Dar Williams' "The Christians and the Pagans," to "Let the Sunshine In" from HAIR, along with the writing of Margaret Atwood, William Blake, and Ogden Nash, each selection is a celebration or a lament of this cold dark winter season.

Bradley has a gorgeous opera-trained voice and elevates every song he sings, and turns poetry and prose into music. He closes the show with a song by one of my favorite local musicians, Peter Mayer's "My Soul." Bradley turns this poignant and simple folk song into a glorious anthem that will send chills down your spine. It's always a thrill to listen to this "baritone with a baritone," never more so than in this hand-picked collection of songs and stories around a very relevant theme.

When you're doing a show about darkness and light, the lighting must be paid attention to. And it is here. From total darkness to soft candlelight to the bright light of the returning sun, Darren Hensel's lighting design highlights every point in the show. And Sean Healey's sound design allows Bradley to sing harmony with himself - if there's anything better than one Bradley Greenwald singing it's multiple Bradley Greenwalds singing!

Open Eye Figure Theatre is a lovely space but one with not a large audience, and the return of this popular show is almost sold out. But if you can beg, borrow, or steal to get yourself in that room, do so. It's a truly heart-warming experience that will help get you through the long, dark, cold nights to come. Like the cycle of the sun, we can let go of the past and begin again. (Playing through Monday, December 22 - a newly added show that has the best availability.)