Monday, October 10, 2016

"The Kalevala" by nimbus theatre at The Crane Theater

What's The Crane Theater, you ask? It's nimbus theatre's brand new theater space in Northeast Minneapolis. Less than a year after a rent hike forced them out of their previous space in Northeast, a space where they not only presented exciting new work of their own but also hosted many nomadic theater companies in presenting their work, nimbus has found a new home. There seems to be a dearth of small affordable theater spaces for small theater companies (of which there are very many in this town), so the opening of The Crane Theater is an important and exciting thing. This big, open, airy former factory space with 30-foot ceilings will provide a great home for not just nimbus, but many theater companies who need a space in which to share their work, and also for audiences who want to see such work. That's why I donated to their Kickstarter campaign to help with continued renovations, which include a second theater/studio space, and I look forward to watching the space progress and to seeing some great theater there. Last weekend nimbus opened the first show in The Crane Theater, a new work based on the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala. As a new work it's a bit rough, but also fascinating, introducing me to a piece of literature and history with which I was previously unfamiliar, using modern language and cool design elements.

The Kalevala is a collection of traditional Finnish folktales, and considered "one of the most significant works of Finnish literature." Even though I'd never even heard of it, much less knew any of its content or themes, it felt familiar. All of these ancient tales share common archetypes and themes across cultures. So while the names are unfamiliar (and unpronounceable), I could have been watching stories from Greek mythology or European fairy tales. There's an evil and all-powerful witch who curses the people by removing the sun (gotta explain those dark Scandinavian winters somehow), a young man who goes on a quest to kill a large and fearsome beast, a smith who teaches her apprentice, and deaths that must be avenged. The play runs a little long, pushing three hours including intermission, and could be tightened up in places. But the use of modern language and design makes the story accessible.

Jim Ahrens (photo courtesy of nimbus theatre)
nimbus' co-Artistic Directors Liz Neerland and Josh Cragun share duties as playwright and director, respectively. Highlights in the cast include Jim Ahrens as the motorcycle riding first man Väinämöinen, Heidi Berg as the smith Ilmarininen (traditionally a man), Kit Bix as the terrifying and powerful Louhi, Nissa Nordland Morgan as her sweet daughter Ansa who wants to escape, and Nicolas Nelson as the brave and foolish young Lemminkäinen, an operatic bass whose songs are a highlight. In fact I wish there were more music (original music by Luke Tromiczack) because those moments are really lovely and haunting.

Characters are dressed in a mix of modern and traditional clothing, with leather jackets and denim overalls mixed with long skirts and tunics (costume design by Andrea M. Gross and Barb Portinga). Zach Morgan's scenic design includes some really cool and versatile elements, including large logs that form a door, and then are disassembled into a pile, and a slim metal frame hinting at a boat that also doubles as magical gates. Abstract sculptures in the background add a sense of other-worldliness, while still in a grounding earthy metal.

The Kalevala is the first of many new, ambitious, and interesting works of theater to be presented in the brand new Crane Theater. You can check out the play and the new space between now and October 30, but the Kickstarter campaign ends in just a few days. If you'd like to support a space that will provide a home for many small theater companies in town, watch the video, read about their plans, and consider contributing to an exciting new theater space in this community that sorely needs it.