Sunday, August 20, 2023

"WHOOSH!" A Ghost Story and Music Performance by Andrew Erskine Wheeler at the Mill City Museum

The 2023 Minnesota Fringe Festival has just ended, but last night I had the opportunity to revisit one of my favorite shows of the 2022 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Andrew Erskine Wheeler's solo play WHOOSH! The Civil War Mythology of Michael Hickey and His Perilous Precipitation Over St. Anthony Falls has been expanded and renamed WHOOSH! A Ghost Story and Music Performance, presented in the most appropriate location possible - the gorgeous Mill City Museum Ruins Courtyard right next to the falls themselves. St. Anthony Falls, which we learn were known as Owamni Yamni by the Dakota and Gakaabikaang by the Ojibwe, play a big part in this story of an Irish immigrant who follows his brother to Minnesota work in the logging industry, and then into the Civil War. It's a beautiful story that combines local history, ghost stories, Greek tragedies, Irish music, and the trauma of war and loss. Andrew once again gives a captivating performance as multiple characters in this story, and sitting there outdoors on a warm summer night within sight of the location of this historical fictional story was a special experience. I say "was" because the two sold out performances are over, but hopefully we'll see WHOOSH again. In the meantime, check out the other events happening at the Mill City Museum (just make sure there's not a football game happening at the same time to complicate the parking/traffic situation, as I failed to do).

Michael Hickey rows across the Mississippi
(photo courtesy of Andrew Erskine Wheeler)
Before the show, we were treated to music by The Lost Forty, whose most recent album The Lonesome Hours of Winter features "new arrangements of songs from the north woods of Minnesota." It doesn't get much more appropriate than that for this story. Throwing himself completely into character (even in the pre-show announcements), Andrew Erskine Wheeler starts the tale as an Irish immigrant named Michael Hickey who followed his brother to the logging camps of Northern Minnesota, speaking directly to the audience as he tells us what life in the logging camps was like. Shortly after arrival in this country, the Civil War started. His brother joined the 1st Minnesota Regiment in the Civil War, so Michael joined the second. After Michael returned from the war (and his brother didn't), Michael was traumatized and lost and drunk. He was given a job after the war by his sergeant (who, spoiler alert, is Andrew's ancestor), and survived a tumble over the falls, where he encountered the spirit of a Dakota woman and her son who were said to haunt the island upon which he was deposited. He was arrested, it being illegal to go over the falls, and he and his sergeant defend himself.

Andrew personifies all of these people, with a change of accent or accessory to his period costume. Into this story he brilliantly weaves the history of the falls, Indigenous and White people's stories and legends surrounding it, the infamous painting in the Minnesota State Capitol about Father Hennepin's "discovery" of the falls by artist Douglas Volk, and the horrors of war and its aftermath. With direction by Allison Vincent, the show seamlessly flows from one story to the next, one character to the next, and that wraps back around to pick up a thread. The impressive array of props includes everyday items, vintage pieces, and replicas of the paintings discussed, all of which Andrew flawlessly manipulates to help tell the story. In one expanded section, after intermission (which obviously the Fringe version didn't have), Andrew returns in a mask as a Greek chorus (there are references to the Odyssey throughout) and the ghost of Douglas Volk. The additional of music, mostly pre-show and at intermission, is a nice touch too. In addition to The Lost Forty, Siri Hammond plays the autoharp as a muse on a few occasions. The whole show is thoughtfully constructed with great attention to every detail.

Some Fringe shows are great for Fringe, and end there. Others have more life in them. WHOOSH is in the latter category. Hopefully we'll see it again - stay tuned!