Saturday, October 21, 2023

"The Pavilion" at Lyric Arts

After opening their 2023-2024 season with the smash hit sell-out quintessential musical about musicals A Chorus Line, Lyric Arts is bringing us something quieter and more intimate, but no less meaningful, and no less deserving of sell-out crowds. Written by Minnesota screenwriter and playwright Craig Wright, The Pavilion is a lovely, funny, and bittersweet play that's filled with beautiful, poetic, profound, airy language, 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 talented three-person (plus one musician) cast and creative team do a beautiful job of bringing this story to life on Lyric's stage. They're already halfway through their short three-week run, so don't miss out on seeing this lovely show before it fades into the past.

Pine City class of 2003's (updated from 1977 in the original to make it current) "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.*

Peter and Kari (Chris Paulson and Audrey Johnson)
(photo by Molly Weibel)
Jake Sung-Guk Sullivan has proven himself to be as good of a director as he is an actor, and once again brings out all of the humor, poignancy, and playfulness in this script, balancing the grounded reality of the dialogue and situations with the ethereal language and themes. Michael Terrell Brown is a delight as the narrator, especially when portraying too many characters to count as they interact with our main couple. As said couple, Audrey Johnson and Chris Paulson are two actors who have been seen frequently on Lyric's and other stages around town, and only get better each time I see them. They're so believable in these roles, awkward and angry and familiar, with a tender chemistry that makes me root for Kari and Peter, even though this isn't that kind of play. 

Audrey Johnson and Michael Terrell Brown in the pavilion
(photo by Molly Weibel)
The design of the show supports the dreamlike, wistful feel of the play. The titular pavilion on the lake is well represented by Justin Hooper's set - a wooden dock that looks like it's been there forever, a simple frame of the pavilion roof, some rustic benches. The warm and soft lighting changes with mood and time of day, with dreamy stars appearing in the later hours. The sound design (beginning with appropriate pre-show music that includes my favorite Glen Hansard) also adds to the story, with subtle nature sounds. Characters are dressed in modern casual-dressy attire appropriate for a high school reunion. Last but not least, Steven Ramirez on guitar adds much to the story with almost constant underscoring, almost like another character in the play. (Sound design by Emily Ludewig, lighting design by Andrew Norfolk, costume design by Jamie Nguyen.)

With subtle Minnesota references (more mentions of "the Cities" than lutefisk jokes) and universal themes of love, loss, regret, and the constant passage of time, The Pavilion is a story that feels familiar, but told in a fresh and innovative way. It's very much my kind of play - no happy endings, no clear resolutions, just a rumination on this thing called life. In this season of big, loud, and spooky things, don't let this quiet treasure get lost. See The Pavilion at Lyric Arts in Anoka now through October 29.

*Some text borrowed from my review of Yellow Tree Theatre's 2014 production.