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ISSUE 121 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/16/2007

"Brothers" questions poverty

By Luke Schlather
Contributing Writer

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Blood Brothers," running at St. Olaf from Nov. 9-17, begins by invoking the specter of poverty on the audience. Entering the theatre, white laminated cards mounted around the lobby proclaim the tragedy of poverty in the words of Mahatma Ghandi, Maya Angelou and others. The play seeks to call into question the forces of poverty and wealth in the world. In this, the play only partially succeeds.

Directed by Professor Karen Wilson, the production has a clean, elegant simplicity to it. When the curtains open, the cast stands huddled in the midst of fog, soft singing drifting out to the audience. Soon the musical gets underway, and stage takes on the aspect of the inner-city, with pictures of run-down buildings flying down into the background. The furniture that appeared in the show rolled in and out, leaving a completely open stage.

This sparse scenery left much of the scene-painting to the company's excellent performance. Moving from city street to business office and from classroom to country road, they never dropped a beat. As an ensemble, the cast had a great rhythm, but at times this perfect synchrony felt too perfect, originating from the simplistic us-or-them model of humanity that composer/lyricist Willy Russell puts forth.

The play posits two worlds, one rich and one poor, that rarely overlap and only with terrible results. Their clean precision belies the obvious dirtiness of the whole mess. Passive attempts are made to vilify the rich and romanticize the poor.

To a degree, I enjoyed the tack that the show took towards emphasizing similarity rather than difference. When stepping into the shoes of poor people, the cast looked as clean cut as anyone walking into Fireside on the average day at St. Olaf. However, at the end of the play, it just didn't sit right. Separating rich and poor completely, misguidedly acknowledges the fundamental difficulty of reconciliation. Making the rich and poor so similar seems to imply that the affluent have a basic understanding of the poor already.

However, among the cast, Camryn Reynolds '09, as Mrs. Johnstone, the mother of the twins, gave an excellent performance. It represented in some ways a departure for her, who I remember most strongly as the heavily sensual grandmother in "Pippin," produced during Jan.uary of 2006. Hellen Hassinger '09 plays Mrs. Lyons, a barren woman who adopts one of the twins, telling her husband it's their own. Musically, her performance is strong, but she could do more to define the character.

I felt like I was supposed to hate her, but I could neither muster the emotion nor decide exactly how the show wanted me to despise this woman. Daniel Greco '09, as Mr. Lyons, made a stark departure from his role as the happy-go-lucky fascist narrator in "Urinetown" (fall 2006). Like Reynolds, he demonstrates impressive range as an actor.

Narrator Cameron Doran '11 also gave a strong musical performance, his rich baritone lending a nice creepiness to the scene. The twins, Mickey (Peter Politis '11) and Eddie (Travis Chantar '09), had probably the most difficult roles in the production. Martha Stuckey '09, as the center of their love triangle, also faces the same issues. They created an interesting evolution from children to adults, aided by an excellent ensemble, moving often between neighborhood children and adults around the neighborhood.

Moving into adulthood, the cast maintained a certain childishness that added an interesting dimension to the production. At one point, Mickey attacks his brother, claiming that Eddie never had to grow up, but life intervened and forced him to do so. The eventual course of their lives, combined with the vestiges of childhood that remain in the actors seem to suggest that it was in fact Mickey who failed to grow up. While an interesting position, I felt it trivialized Mickey's worth as a human being, to reduce his actions to childish, unwarranted outbursts.

At the end of the first act, I found the free-moving, unobtrusive set an apt metaphor for the production. We can easily sweep issues of poverty off the stage of our lives and forget about them. At the end of the show, I felt less certain. Pieces of this show will stick in your mind, in many ways drawing inexorably back to the essential divide between rich and poor. In any event, the show does an excellent job with themes of betrayal and destiny.

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