The Garden Premieres at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis and Grows Into Something Rather Special
Open Flame Theatre is an all-transgender/gender non-conforming theatre ensemble that has been in existence in some form or other since 2009, but I had never heard of them. Faithful readers will know that the information contained within that first sentence made this a must see for me. With a transgender son, I am always interested in plays representing transgender themes and storylines or feature transgender artists, either on or backstage. I also love finding “new to me” theater companies, it’s a wild card you never know what you’re walking into, amatuer hour or a new favorite. Open Flame Theatre falls squarely in the “new favorite” camp. Their new opera The Garden, is visually captivating and beautifully performed. With a text that is thematically rich, it’s at times very dark, at others quite humorous and ultimately wonderfully uplifting. Do not let the word “opera” scare you, if the press release didn’t state it was an opera, I wouldn’t have used those words to describe it. So if “opera” is triggering for you, rest assured this is not what you’re afraid of. There’s singing, but it’s all clearly understood, in English, and it seemed to me there was as much dialogue as there was singing, if not more. There’s even a song by Queen in it, you don’t need to be worried about the use of music in this piece
With a text that is thematically rich, it’s at times very dark, at others quite humorous and ultimately wonderfully uplifting.
The Garden is Part Two of the companies Rewilding Triptych, but again do not worry, the parts are only linked thematically. They’re independant works that don’t rely in anyway on even the knowledge of the existence of the other parts. Created and written by co-Artistic Directors Katie Burgess and Walken Schweigert who also play the main characters. Schweigert is also created as one of the Composers of the songs along with among others Ludwig Van Beethoven and Queen. Schweigert plays Hayden a young trans man who is being subjected to conversion therapy under the care of Dr. Pannish played by Burgess. To escape, Hayden opens a portal to hell where he seeks refuge with the Devil, also played by Burgess. Ok, that part sounds a little like an opera, but trust me. The story follows Hayden back and forth between the hospital and hell and it’s left up to you to determine for yourself if these transportations are literally happening or if it’s in Hayden’s mind that the battle for his soul and identity is taking place. The answer to that question isn’t really important, the result of that battle is what matters. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I always understood everything that was happening in every moment, but rather than being a detriment to my enjoyment, it only made me want to see it again.
It’s an incredibly vulnerable performance and one feels as though they have seen an actor who has laid his soul bare onstage in the service of creating understanding.
Schweigart has an exceptionally powerful vocal quality that is evident from his first moments singing in the hospital, it just about carries you up and out of the theatre towards heaven near the end when he sings “I Want to be Free.” Schweigart’s performance is equally captivating from a nonvocal perspective. It’s an incredibly vulnerable performance and one feels as though they have seen an actor who has laid his soul bare onstage in the service of creating understanding. Using song, movement, and performance to engender empathy within the audience. Burgess, in contrast to Schweigart’s moving and tortured character, gets to play both the Dr and the Devil as if they are two sides of a coin, the currency being chaos. Burgess begins playing Dr. Pannish straight but with an undercurrent of menace; however, as the show progresses so does her characters journey along the border between reality and absurdity. The Devil character has an almost Beetlejuice quality about her. On the surface the character is very similar to that of Satan in Paul Gordon’s rock musical Analog and Vinyl, but this character is much more detached from any sense of reality. Burgess is excellent at changing gears from moment to moment keeping you completely off balance uncertain what she’ll do next. The cast is rounded out by Dana Dailey and Sri Peck as Nuns, they don’t have much if any dialogue, but they add visually to many scenes and their absence would diminish the whole. The Infernal Orchestra is comprised of Silen Wellington on keys, synth, glockenspiel, and clarinet, and Alma Engebretson on the cello and tambourine.
The Southern Theater is the perfect setting for anything that flirts with the horror genre as the stage area with its battered stone archway, it reminds me of the ruins of Dracula’s castle in Transylvania. The look and the stageing of The Garden, under the direction of Richard Newman make full use of the environments inherent creepiness. Every aspect of the production adds up to a visually impressive whole. The production design is by Katie Burgess with Elisa Sugar, while relatively simple in terms of set pieces, it’s simplicity leads to an abundance of creativity to achieve some really effective moments. The lighting design by Heidi Eckwall is a highpoint creating menace in shadows and silhouettes and assisting in highlighting the puppet work by Orren Fen. There are many striking visual moments from the show that will stay with me long after this show has closed.
The Garden runs through May 28th at the Southern theater for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://southerntheater.org/shows/the-garden-the-only-way-out-of-hell-is-through-it.
Please Note: Masks will be required to attend this performance.
Content Warning: Conversion therapy, live BDSM, sexual content, forced medication.
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