Monday, December 2, 2019

"The Viking and the Gazelle" by The Waterfront Productions at Mixed Blood Theatre

The independently produced Minnesota Fringe play The Viking and the Gazelle is being remounted at Mixed Blood Theatre this December with a mostly new cast. Producers (under the name The Waterfront Productions) and co-writers William and Suzanne Bengston based the play on their experiences as an interracial couple. It's an interesting premise and the play includes some good discussions, bringing up some important issues like institutional racism and white spaces that hopefully encourage discussion amongst those who see it. But there's no nuance or subtlety; every character is one extreme or the other, so much so that they feel less like real people and more like caricatures of certain "types" of people. Still, these are important conversations to be had.

As an independently produced Fringe show, The Viking and the Gazelle did not have to adhere to Fringe rules, and from what I've heard (I didn't see it) was about 90 minutes long. They've since added an intermission for a total two-hour runtime, but it could be tightened up to 90 minutes no intermission (my and Jack Reuler's four favorite words in theater) that might better serve the story. The scenic design (by Laura Laillencourt) serves the story well, with Robert's chic and modern apartment on one side, Michelle's warm and cozy living room on the other, and a dining area space in the middle that functions as various locations both in the homes and outside of them.

Michelle (Pascha Fountain) and Robert (Gabriele Angieri)
with Aunt Lisa (Laura Esping, photo by Bruce Silcox)
Robert (Gabriele Angieri), a white man from Hopkins, and Michelle (Pascha Fountain), a black woman from Chicago's south side, meet on Match and hit it off. But when they meet in person, Michelle doesn't know if she wants to get involved with "white corporate America." She decides to gives Robert another chance, and discovers that he might be the man for her, despite his whiteness. Everyone in their lives has the most extreme reactions to their relationship. Michelle's friend Sheila (MadelineKarita Fleming) chides her for going out with a white man, and predicts a bad end. Sheila's husband Karsen (Rex Isom, Jr.) won't even look at him. Robert's pals are pretty despicable: Sam (Paul Economon) is a racist gun-owner preparing for the "end times," and Rajesh (Varghese Alexander) is an Indian man who "identifies white." Robert's aunt Lisa (Laura Esping) is the worst of all - the kind of well-meaning white lady who thinks we're beyond racism but says things like "white is a color too" and "all lives matter." For some reason, Robert and Michelle still want to be together, until she finds something in his apartment that illustrates how little he understands her cultural history.

Directed by Shá Cage and E.G. Bailey, the play does include some powerful moments that effectively illustrate the issues at play, particularly Karsen's monologue about his fear for the safety of himself, his son, and his father as black men living in this world, and Michelle's need for a black space to feel safe and comfortable in her skin (a fact Robert never quite seems to grasp from his place of privilege). And the conflict between wanting to hold on to one's culture while dating, marrying, or starting a family with someone from a different culture feels real. But there's also a lot of unpleasant one-sided rhetoric that's hard to listen to. Maybe that's the point, I'm just not sure it really adds anything new to the conversation.

The Viking and the Gazelle continues through December 15 at Mixed Blood Theatre.