Passage a Thought Provoking Co-Production of Pillsbury House Theatre & Exposed Brick Theatre
After all these years it still amazes me when I attend a show at a theatre I’ve never been in before. Pillsbury House + Theatre was a new venue for me, I’d heard of them but I’m not on their mailing list so by time I’m aware of a show, I’ve already filled my schedule. The space itself is wonderfully intimate, seating about 100 people and from what I saw it has everything technically a theater needs to mount an effective production. Passage, which is a co-production between Pillsbury House + Theatre and Exposed Brick Theatre, takes full advantage of the theatre’s space and equipment. For a play that’s mostly about ideas expressed through dialogue, it’s surprisingly sophisticated in its use of sound and lighting. It grapples with political and philosophical questions yet very emotionally engaging and entertaining. In nearly every aspect of the production it excels but it’s the cast that makes everything else fall to the side and seem inconsequential by comparison. It’s the sort of cast that will ruin any future productions of this play that I may see, as any cast will be compared to this and surely be found wanting.
The play written by Christopher Chen has as the seed of it’s plot E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Chen’s play becomes more universal by askewing specifics, setting his play in a world of two fictitious countries, he’s still able to explore the themes of colonialism and the suppression while inviting other social issues into the discussion. Rather than struggle through a plot synopsis, I’ll let the Theatre company speak to that:
Set in the fictional Country X, a neocolonial client of Country Y, PASSAGE examines colonialism, power, and how societal imbalances affect interpersonal dynamics through the story of B, a local doctor, and F, an expat teacher, after their friendship is challenged during a fateful trip to a local attraction.Pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org
Many of the scenes are discussions between characters at times debating issues and exploring those ideas of interpersonal dynamics within a society that has an imbalance of power. The reality we as the audience know is that all societies have imbalances in power and thus the ideas being discussed have wider implications than those specific to the play. The play is designed to give the audience some sliver of understanding of what colonialism does to both the occupied and the occupiers but it also illustrates generational trauma and institutional racism. It helps us to draw the larger parallels to our own society through incidents that we can view more broadly such as the imbalance of justice based on social standing or race. It sounds dry, but it is done with such wonderful words that we don’t feel preached at, we feel like we are at the table during a lively discussion. Chen wisely doesn’t pretend to have the answer to these issues. There are no easy answers, it is the conversation, the empathy, and the acknowledgement that these things are true that begins the road to enlightenment. But there is no solution, the solution is for these things to not exist, to have never existed, and that isn’t possible.
I could literally gush about every performer in the show so please take it as a given that this is a phenomenal cast. Let me highlight a few favorites though, first and brightest is Valencia Proctor, I simply could not take my eyes off of her. All of the characters have moments when they are trying to do the right thing and moments when they are not at their best. Proctor as F not only works at all times to do the right thing, to listen and to adapt, but she makes us believe all of that is happening in front of our eyes. I felt like I was watching her navigating and adjusting to what was happening moment to moment. Oogie_Push as B, the Doctor from Country X, who though a great physician still has to be subservient to those from Country Y. Push excellently plays B with restraint and a long suffering composure, that when she finally does allow some of the bent up rage out, it’s palpable. Marisa B. Tejeda is Q her scenes with Antonio Rios-Luna as her fiance R are filled with the tension we’ve all experienced when we’ve come to a discord with our partner, the moments ring true, as does her breakdown after the event that brings things to a head politically. Another favorite scene performed with greta humor has James A. Williams (Dub) as G, and Clay Man Soo as J, interpreting an interaction they are observing between B and F.
Some show the transitions between scenes when the stage is reset and set pieces moved on and off seem a bit clunky. This set is amazingly versatile and while there is a lot of reconfiguring and repositioning, it’s all done with this element of grace that it almost feels like a moment of meditation as we prepare for the next scene. Credit for that goes to the Scenic Designer Mina Kinukawa, Stage Manager Lyndsey R. Harter, and Technical Director Austin Stiers. Peter Morrow’s sound design work is fantastic as is the lighting work of Mitchell Frazier, never has absolute darkness felt so immediate and urgent. Co-directors Signe V. Harriday & Suzy Messerole make the excellent decision to cast with all BIPOC actors. This allows us to take another step away from the specific and into the universal. We don’t need to have the white villain, we all know historically, that is the reality. By not doing that we can look at the underlying issues of human nature more clearly. We can widen the conversation beyond the specific and in that way invite everyone into the process.
Passage runs at Pillsbury House + Theatre through October 15th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org/passage/. I’d also encourage you to listen to the latest episode of the Twin Cities Theater Chat podcast where M’Colleagues Jill Schafer of Cherry and Spoon and Carol Jackson and Julie Jackson of Minnesota Theater Love are joined by Suzy Messerole, the Co-Artistic Director of Exposed Brick Theatre and Signe V. Harriday, the Artistic Producing Director of Pillsbury House + Theatre to discuss Passage. you can find that episode here https://twincitiestheaterchat.buzzsprout.com/2150807/13610335
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Photo Credit: Bruce Silcox