REVIEW: Theatre Novi Most's newest work combines two plays. At its best, it is unified and comprehensive.
Among the supposed attributes of the Twin Cities theater scene is a rich diversity of style and approach. We often don't get to see it, and that is reason enough to visit Theatre Novi Most. The small company, headed by Lisa Channer and Vladimir Rovinsky, features a vigorous physicality in a highly articulate approach to difficult texts.
Novi Most's newest work blends two absurdist plays in a production that opened Saturday at the Southern Theatre in Minneapolis. "Picnic on the Battlefield" takes its title from the short work by Fernando Arrabal. Slawomir Mrozek's "Enchanted Night" is the primary source for the second act.
"Picnic" is a 1961 play featuring a beleaguered soldier, Zapo, who receives an unexpected visit from his parents. An enemy soldier, Zepo, stumbles into the picnic and Arrabal finds rich, cynical comment on the panic of war.
At its best, Novi Most's work is wonderfully comprehensive in creating a unity between acting, costuming, lighting and sound. Actor Billy Mullaney's Zapo wrestles vigorously with the strap of his rifle while a cacophony of bombs thunder and lights flash with precise effect. Maren Ward and Diogo Lopes, playing Zapo's parents, look as though they have wandered off a Georges Seurat masterpiece to spend a Sunday afternoon with their son. Majid Mokhtari gives Zepo a weary charm and compliant energy.
The actors move with physical exactitude and the dialogue is archly realized. Lopes has an excellent feel for mood. This cool style -- which rarely seems aware of itself -- allows Zapo and Zepo to share the poignant similarities of their war service without lapsing into sentimentality. Through brilliant observation and a taut thread of growing dread, Channer and Rovinsky are able to close the first act with a searing moment of tragic reality that breaks the playful absurdity.
The second act, built largely around "Enchanted Night," does not match the first in terms of its visual acuity or interest. Christopher Kehoe and Jason Ballweber pick up their roles as battlefield stretcher bearers, although we see them many years hence.
They check into a hotel built on the same battlefield and spend an uneasy night, visited by the ghosts of those they carried away and by a lovely avatar of a war widow (Carly Wicks).
Ballweber in particular is a gifted comic actor but this scenario has much less of the physical energy and cracking style of the first act. Word play and psychological inquiry dominate Mrozek's landscape to the point of weariness.
Still, there is an aesthetic here that deserves a look. Novi Most offers a refreshing break from the kitchen-sink drama that fills our schedule.
Graydon Royce on Twitter: @graydonroyce