Thursday, February 8, 2024

"Toil & Trouble" at Yellow Tree Theatre

In recent years, Lauren Gunderson has become one of my favorite playwrights, with her fresh, modern, feminist plays about women in history, and her Christmas at Pemberley series, the best Pride and Prejudice fan fiction (co-written by Margo Melcon). And I'm not alone in my love for her plays; she's one of the most produced playwrights in recent years. So whenever a theater programs one of her plays, I'm all for it (I would like to request #TCTheater productions of the women-in-science plays The Half-Life of Marie Curie and Emilie: La Marquise du Ch√Ętelet Defends Her Life Tonight next season). But I'm not sure I would have recognized Toil & Trouble, now playing on Yellow Tree Theatre's Osseo stage, as one of her works. It might be the only one of her plays set in modern times that I've ever seen, and it's much darker than her other work that I'm familiar with. But it's still smart, funny, modern, and feminist (because women can be murderers too!). Yellow Tree's production is perfectly cast, with abundantly detailed design, and darkly hilarious. Go get your Lauren Gunderson fix in Osseo now through March 3 (and follow it up with Silent Sky at Theatre in the Round, opening soon).

As you might guess from the title, Toil & Trouble is a modern comedic take on Macbeth. Instead of 11th Century Scotland, it's 2008 San Francisco, with our trio suffering the effects of the recession. Matt and Adam are roommates who are overeducated and underemployed. Adam is the idea man, and he comes up with a sure-fire money-making plan - take over a small island country. When a fortune cookie tells Matt he's going to be King, he jumps on board with the plan. Their friend Beth has a job as a local sports reporter, but isn't getting the stories she wants (the Giants are in the World Series - which was actually 2010 - leading to lots of fun baseball analogies). Both of the men are sort of in love with her, so when Matt proposes to her, she agrees because she wants to be Queen, and "Matt-Beth" is born. Watch out Adam, because their ambition knows no bounds, even murder! The friendship is tested as each of them tries to come out on top.

Alex Galick, Olivia Kemp, and Jason Ballweber
(photo by Alex Clark)
Following a recent unfortunate trend, this one act 90-minute play has an intermission added, but I didn't mind it as much as some others. Maybe it's because I wanted to catch up with my friends (my work friend group has been going to Yellow Tree for over ten years), maybe because it came at a good moment of the script and gave us (and the cast) a breather. The intermission didn't feel wholly out of place, but it probably wasn't necessary either. The play is smartly constructed, with hints at Macbeth for those who know the play (prophesies from fortune cookies, and familiar quotes sprinkled in), but not in a way that's confusing for those who don't. Director Brandon Raghu and his cast play up every moment of humor in the script, and I suspect add in some that weren't there. Alex Galick (Adam) in particular makes some very specific and unexpected choices - funny accents, crying - that are just this side of over-the-top, and I found hugely entertaining. Jason Ballweber (Matt) is hilarious too, cracking me up with his "pug wheezing" (this Macbeth is not the most confident). Olivia Kemp (Beth) is deliciously evil, just completely going for it with no reservations. The three of them make a great team, with a believable and lived in friendship.

photo by Alex Clark
Yellow Tree's tiny stage is overflowing with the accoutrements of a bachelor pad, and it's incredibly detailed, even to the fully dressed kitchen in a nook behind the stage. On stage, there's a shabby couch and coffee table, with an unmade bed in a loft area. Every surface (and even under the furniture) is covered with odd and specific props that let us know these two dudes have been spending way too much time in their apartment. The costumes tell us who these characters are, from Adam's many ties, to Matt's Oxford comma shirt (someone tell me where I can get that), to Beth's reporter chic and loungewear chic (set design by Sarah Brandner, costume design by Samantha Fromm Haddow).

The more Lauren Gunderson I can have in my life, the better (she's a 40-year-old woman with pink hair, how can you not love her?). Toil & Trouble may be a bit of a departure from some of her other work I've seen, but it's clever, fun, absurd, and wildly entertaining.