Saturday, March 2, 2024

"The Hatmaker's Wife" by Ten Thousand Things at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church

The Hatmaker's Wife by Lauren Yee (whose most recent work produced in #TCTheater was the epic Cambodian Rock Band by Theater Mu and Jungle Theater) feels like it was written for Ten Thousand Things (it wasn't - it premiered over ten years ago). It's in the vein of their magical fairy tale stories, that I think is my favorite kind of TTT show (even more than their clear-eyed Shakespeare or stripped down musicals). I can't imagine a "normal" theater company doing this play, meaning on a proscenium stage separated from the audience, with fancy lights, sets, and costumes. It's so well suited to the TTT All the Lights On style, weaving a magical and moving tale simply through the talents of the performers and the power of collective imagination (that makes even the aggressively religious paintings in the room at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church fade into the background). It's a story of love, and disconnection, and grief, and hope, a wistful and whimsical story of talking walls, golems, and connections across time. These hats continue to sing at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church this weekend (with a huge free parking lot) and then will move on to Open Book for two final weekends.

The play takes place in the suburbs of NYC in two time periods. Shortly after moving into a new place with her boyfriend, a young woman (known only as Voice) begins to hear the walls talk. The Wall drops pages of a story which she reads, as the story of a hatmaker and his wife, who used to live in this home, unfolds. Hetchman loves his hat more than anything (he hears music when he puts it on), and is sick with grief when the hat disappears. He's less concerned when his wife also disappears at the same time, although he is annoyed there's no one to cook and clean for him. He complains to his friend Meckel, whose loving but not so smart wife died several years ago. Soon a golem (per Wiki, "an animated, anthropomorphic being in Jewish folklore") appears, presumably to help him find lost things (including memories). In the present day, Voice becomes more and more enthralled with the sad story of Hetchman and his wife, who wants more than he can give her, and more and more disconnected with her own life and relationships. Eventually, the two stories come together in a wholly satisfying way, as both protagonists learn about the love that grounds us (literally in this story).

Open Eye Theatre's Joel Sass directs the piece, imbuing it with the sense of play and whimsy often seen at his home theater. Even without any lighting or scenic changes, the time shifts are clear and easy to follow, and the story feels both modern and old-timey. Joel also designed the set, such as it is - a ladder in one corner, a comfy old chair and ottoman in the other (where Hetchman spends most of his time), and worn boxes all around the space filled with charming props moved from one place to the next (the most fun: a grabber used by the lazy Hetchman and others). The present day characters are dressed in casual chic clothing, the others dressed in a way that you can tell they're from an unspecified bygone era (costume design by Sonya Berlovitz).

Kimberly Richardson and Jim Lichtsheidl
(photo courtesy of Ten Thousand Things)
Everyone in the six-person cast is just a joy to watch - up close and personal with nowhere to hide. Michelle de Joya is a wonderfully sympathetic guide through the story as Voice; watching her watch the story is part of the fun. Clay Man Soo is her boyfriend, who can't understand her increasing disconnection. Jim Lichtscheidl and Kimberly Richardson are so delightful as Hetchman and his wife, both with great physicality to their acting that often mirrors one another, creating a believable lived in relationship between them. Pedro Bayon as Meckel is a welcome companion to both Hetchman and his wife, and Tyson Forbes is a great wall, who also physically transforms into a golem, his tall frame hunched over inside a huge furry costume, somehow threatening and adorable at the same time. 

While Ten Thousand Things doesn't have lighting or big set pieces, they do have sound to help set the tone, create the characters, and define scenes. With longtime resident Music Director Peter Vitale taking a step back, there's been a rotating cast of musicians sitting in the corner, and this time Katherine Fried takes the helm. Utilizing multiple instruments (and occasionally joined by cast members doubling as musicians), she creates a live soundscape that's sweet and hopeful and slightly melancholic, with some fun sound effects that emphasize the odd little bits of the story.

As part of Ten Thousand Things' mission, they perform for free in community centers, schools, homeless shelters, and prisons, bringing art to those who don't normally have access to it. Their production of the fairy tale that is The Hatmaker's Wife is the kind of story that appeals to everyone, with relatable themes told in a fun and whimsical way. It's funny, sad, and sweet, perhaps my favorite combination, and as always uniquely and perfectly executed by the cast and creative team at Ten Thousand Things.