Tuesday, January 23, 2024

"Ironbound" by Frank Theatre at Gremlin Theatre

Leave it to Wendy Knox to discover a new-to-#TCTheater playwright who has written (at least one) gorgeous, funny, devastating, and very human play about immigrants, poverty, classism, sexism, and so much more. Ironbound is believed to be the first of Polish-American Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok's work to be produced in the Twin Cities, and it's a stunner. As per usual, it receives top notch treatment in Frank Theatre's production, with beautifully raw and real performances from the four-person cast and an understated but effective design. It's only mid-January, but I'm confident this will be one of the best plays of 2024. It plays Thursdays through Sundays at Gremlin Theatre until February 11. Click here for info and tickets, and watch for Frank's remount of another fantastic and relevant play, Fetal, playing at their intimate studio space in late February. After a very long hiatus, it's a joy to have Frank Theatre back with two strong plays, that are probably among my favorites that I've seen them do.

The playwright very cleverly sets the entire play at a bus station in New Jersey outside of a now abandoned factory. We begin in 2014 (when the play premiered), with Polish immigrant Darja arguing with her boyfriend Tommy, who has cheated on her but is trying to convince her to stay with him. Darja doesn't have a lot of options, trying to take care of herself and her drug addicted adult son by cleaning houses, so she decides to see what she can get out of this situation. Tommy wants something from her, and she wants something from Tommy. We flash back from this present time to 1992, when Darja and her husband Maks were newly arrived and working at the now closed factory. They have big dreams of a life in America, but their dreams diverge. We also see a scene from 2008, Darja having difficulties with her second marriage, and a chance encounter with a young man who changes the trajectory of her life. She ends up back at the bus stop in 2014, finding a way forward with the options that are available to her.

Tommy (Carl Schoenborn) and Darja (Brittany D. Parker)
(photo by Tony Nelson Photography)
One of the things I love about this play is that it doesn't fill everything in; we don't know every detail of what happened with Darja's marriages, jobs, and son. It's a 100-minute play that could easily be expanded into a 10-episode Netflix series and still have more to explore. But despite the lack of specifics in some areas, the character of Darja is so clear, real, and human. That's in the writing, but it's also in Brittany D. Parker's remarkable performance. Having worked a lot in comedy in her career, she's like those comedy actors you know and love (Steve Carell, Bob Odenkirk, et al) who you suddenly realize are fantastic dramatic actors as well. She's in every scene of the play, speaks in broken English with a Polish accent, and just completely transforms into this woman who has seen her hopes and dreams repeatedly dashed into the ground. You feel her weariness, her caution in relating to people, her humor used as a defense mechanism. Brittany cries real tears, expressing real and raw emotion throughout Darja's journey to nowhere. 

Vic (Jack Bonko) and Darja (Brittay D. Parker)
(photo by Tony Nelson Photography)
The three men in the cast are great too, some of them only appearing in one or two scenes. Carl Schoenborn makes Darja's cheating boyfriend almost likeable; Benjamin Dutcher, a musical theater and opera performer making his straight play debut, although still showing off his gorgeous voice (and harmonica skills), is charmingly frustrating as Darja's first husband; and Jack Bonko impresses as the young man Darja encounters who isn't quite who he seems. As always, Wendy Knox's direction is perfection, the tone and pace exactly what they should be, the time jumps clear and understandable, the distinct scenes flowing from present to past and back again.

Maks (Benjamin Dutcher) and Darja (Brittany D. Parker)
(photo by Tony Nelson Photography)
The Gremlin stage looks every bit the run-down bus stop, with garbage piled up behind a dilapidated fence, and a single dingy bench. Sound design provides a constant hum of traffic, with louder engines as vehicles drive up to the bus stop. The lighting design is subtle and keeps things looking muted and shabby, except for when the glaring headlights of an approaching car shine on the stage, putting everyone on the defensive. Characters are dressed in appropriate working-class attire that tell us who they are - factory and USPS uniforms, jeans and sweatshirts, a Devils jacket (did I mention this was New Jersey?). (Set design by Joe Stanley, costume design by Amelia Cheever, lighting design by Tony Stoeri, and sound design by Dan Dukich.)

The bus stop represents Darja being stuck in one place, no matter how hard she works to get herself and her family out of it. The play shows us the opposite of the American Dream, or what happens when the American Dream fails its citizens, especially women, immigrants, and those stuck in a cycle of poverty and violence. It's devastating to think that Darja has been in America for 22 years and is still struggling every day just to get through. This play is so relevant in showing us the ugly side of America, where some people, due to systemic issues rather than their own failings, struggle their entire lives and never break through. This is the kind of work that Frank does, and beautifully so.

Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend of Martyna Majok's working being produced in #TCTheater. Full Circle Theatre Company is including her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, which "delves into the chasm between abundance and need and explores the space where bodies—abled and disabled—meet each other," in their upcoming play reading series (click here for info and free registration).