If you’re really in touch with your Scandinavian heritage, maybe you’ve heard of the Kalevala, the Finnish literary epic grown from an oral tradition much like The Iliad or the Mahabharata. But have you read it? I certainly haven’t, and I bet most of you haven’t either: the Oxford World’s Classics edition, at least, is over 700 pages long, and for whatever reason, the tale hasn’t gained as much popularity as its Greek or Indian counterparts.
The Kalevala deserves better: it’s an exciting tale of magic battles and heroic quests, so it’s exciting that the Nimbus Theatre is sparing everyone the trouble of reading it by putting on a staged adaptation. It is even more to their credit that they’ve taken on such an ambitious project as their first show in their new space at the Crane Theater, a warehouse space that the company has curtained off to create a more intimate stage area. It is easy to imagine how the vast space at the Crane will give the company plenty of room to grow and innovate in the future.
Playwright Liz Neerland and Director Josh Cragun (co-Artistic Directors of Nimbus) have bitten off a lot with this show – first and foremost, the fact that they needed to condense a 22,795 verse epic into a two-and-a-half hour play. And despite what must have been a significant editing process, they manage not to lose the epic’s excitement.
Suffering from an abundance of talent
But in fact, the team could have edited even more, because for all of the moments where the play’s potential shines through, there are just as many where the staging doesn’t come together as it should. In this case, I think the Nimbus’s Kalevala suffers from an abundance of talent, but a lack of either the rehearsal time or the editorial heavy hand to allow everyone to work up to their full potential.
Take two of the main characters, Väinämöinen and Lemminkäinen, played by Jim Ahrens and Nicholas Nelson. Väinämöinen is described as an “eternal bard” with a powerful (and magical) singing ability, while Lemminkäinen is known for his arrogance and hubris. The decision to cast Ahrens and Nelson makes perfect sense – Ahrens has a wonderful tenor voice, while Nelson is a charismatic bass. Luke Tromiczak of gothic folk band Blood and Sun has also contributed some really good original music to the show.
So why, then, do Ahrens and Nelson only get one song each? Ahrens, in particular, seems much more expressive and at ease when singing than when speaking (as befits a good bard). I found myself wishing that Nimbus had gone all the way with this concept and written Kalevala: the Musical… or had simply embraced the bardic tradition and asked Ahrens to sing all of his lines.
The third member of the play’s central heroic trio is Ilmarinen the Smith, played by Heidi Berg. Ilmarinen is full of attitude and dry wit, and Berg plays the character with a perfect balance of pragmatism and wry detachment. But more often than not, I got the sense that Ilmarinen could have crossed the line from occasionally funny into full-on hilarious if Berg had just been given a little more room to play.
Cool concept, rough execution
The set suffered from a similar unevenness. As usual, Zach Morgan has done a beautiful job creating an adaptable set, most notably with his evocative metal sculptures and frames standing in as trees and mountains. But at least on opening night, the cast struggled with the number of transformations required by the play’s many scene changes – especially with the blocks of wood and canoe paddles that magically come together into a doorway. It’s a really neat concept that didn’t get executed as smoothly as it could have.
Rob Roberts III has also created a couple of impressive animal puppets for the show. As with all of the Kalevala’s best qualities, I wanted more of them, and I wanted more dramatic fanfare, more magic, around their use.
The show’s Director’s Note suggests that the play was developed collaboratively by all the artists involved, not just Cragun and Neerland. And the Kalevala is a case where that process shows, both for the better and the worse. Individual actors have moments when they truly shine – aside from Nelson’s cocky remarks and Berg’s witty asides, Nissa Nordland Morgan’s naïve enthusiasm as Ansa also stood out. But the show is also begging for a strong editorial hand, both to rein in some bits of the story that run on too long and to bring an objective eye towards showing off each cast member’s talents.
One of the perks of a company-created show is that it has room to grow and be revisited, if the will… and the time and money… are there. Right now, the staged Kalevala feels sprawling and episodic. This might be close to the feel of the original text, but it doesn’t have us at the edge of our seats. I hope that the company can find the resources to take another crack at it someday, to weave the music more fluidly through the show, to give each actor a chance to fully play to their strengths and to cut away everything that feels superfluous. I would be first in line for Kalevala take two. With a few more edits, I’d love to see what kind of epic magic the company could conjure up.