IRONBOUND a Engrossing new Production From Frank Theatre at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul

Production photo

I believe this was my second experience with Frank Theatre, the first was in the nascent day of The Stages of MN with a powerful drama called Convert about British colonialism in South Africa. Here IRONBOUND is another excellent example of thought provoking theater that asks us to witness and gain understanding of the “other”. In this case, a Polish immigrant named Darja whose story we witness over the course of about 20 years. Told as a non-chronological narrative we open and end with her in 2014 in between we make stops at in the mid 1990’s and 2000’s. Through these time jumps we witness what life has dealt Darja and it informs her actions and decisions in the 2014 segments. Darja’s life has taught her to be practical about things because at first we get the impression that life is a transaction to her.

Brittany D. Parker…blew my socks off through my shoes and up over the audience

As the story plays out, we see the dreams she has slip away and the reality of living in a country with all of the advantages when you are not the one who can take advantage of them. Survival depends on being practical, is something she learned at 20 when a reality came and she made the decision to stop dreaming for what she wanted but instead for what she needed. Now in her early 40’s a relationship has devolved into a transaction rather than love. Something I think that happens to some extent to all of us, the idealism of our youth does give way to an understanding as we get older that we adjust our thinking and our planning to not only include our feelings but also our needs. Needs for comfort, security, companionship, hopefully most of us have the means at that point in our lives so that Darja’s approach seems a little heartbreaking. If it sounds like a downer it isn’t, it’s certainly a little bittersweet, but the script by Martyna Majok is also darkly funny.

Brittany D. Parker plays Darja, I hadn’t expected to see someone “new” to me so early in 2024 that blew my socks off through my shoes and up over the audience so that I had to spend 10 minutes after the performance looking around the auditorium for them. If I’ve seen her before and have just forgotten, I apologize. If she just hasn’t been performing much I’d like to know why the hell not? Accent, perfect. Timing, perfect. Emotional openness, I’ll say. There isn’t a moment in the play that Parker doesn’t make what feels like the only possible performance choice and it’s mesmerizing. Never have I seen a performer bring to life a character so strong and in control that you know she can take care of herself, and it makes you want to take care of her. Before I move onto the rest of the cast I just want to welcome Brittany D. Parker onto the list of performers that I will try and see everything they do going forward. I know we just announced the winners of the TCTB Awards last week, but the competition just kicked into high gear for 2024’s best performance and Parker’s is going to be a tough one to top. I don’t mean to short change the rest of the cast who is also very good. Carl Schoenborn, who according to the program spends most of his time backstage instead of in front of the audience, is Darja’s current boyfriend Tommy, who has a problem with fidelity. Schoenborn is wonderfully weak and weasley and brings a rough sloppy charm to a character that could be one note, is anything but. He comes off as utterly flawed, unsure, and completely real. In a black and white world he sucks, but Schoenborn brings all the crayon colors so he’s not the worst thing that could happen to Darja in the real world where we are all doing the best we can. I hope to see Schoenborn getting out from behind the curtains more often, he’s very welcome. Benjamin Dutcher, whom is what my wife refers to as one of her All is Calm boys, takes on his first play. We’ve known him from operas and musicals for years, and I was surprised to learn this is his first straight play, which I assume is a comment on it being non music based not a comment on it’s sexual orientation. He’s wonderful as Darja’s first husband Maks, the give and take between Dutcher and Parker sells the loving relationship and adds to the bittersweet nature of the its fate. Finally, Jack Bonko plays a highschool kid that Darja encounters on a dark night in 2006. The encounter hints at the fact that whomever we are, we have problems, but also highlights the disparity between the 34 year old immigrant who was preparing to sleep on the street and a high school junior who has the means to offer her food and money for a hotel room. Bonko plays the teen with a streetsmart style, he’s funny and tragic, but also offers a glimpse of human kindness that Darja is sorely in need of being reminded exists.

The play is directed by Frank Theatre Founder and Artistic Director Wendy Knox who has made IRONBOUND the first must see production of 2024. I often find myself at a loss after a production to recall much of the lighting and sound design of a production, that is not the case here. Tony Stoeri’s lighting is creative and adds both realism and a dreamlike quality depending on the scene. There are several scenes where headlights come into play and Stoeri’s solution sells the effect completely. Likewise while most of the time jumps happen as a blackout and fade up after some costume changes, there is a moment towards the end when we get a flashback that is actually more like a memory which the lighting is our signal that this one is different, and it’s perfectly clear to us in that moment what is happening thanks to Stoeri’s work. The soundscape created by Dan Dukich envelopes us into the city streets of New Jersey throughout, but there is also fine detail audio work such as car locks and bus sounds. Along with Set Designer Joes Stanley the technical crew has created a world we recognize as our own and which feels authentic and the perfect atmosphere for the story being told.

IRONBOUND runs through February 11th at the Gremlin theatre in St. Paul. For more information and to purchase tickets go to

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Production Photo by Tony Nelson

Headshot of Rob Dunkelberger
Rob Dunkelberger

Rob is a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers and their podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat as well as a syndicating contributor to Minnesota Playlist. Read all his content