Yellow Tree may be a little theater in an unlikely location — a strip mall in Osseo — but it's seen outsize success over the past 10 years, including various hits and a recent National Theater Grant from the American Theater Wing. What better way to celebrate its past decade than to revisit "String," the show that started it all?
"String" was written by Jessica Lind Peterson, who founded Yellow Tree with her husband, Jason Peterson. The two also perform in the piece as the mismatched couple at the heart of this romantic comedy. Jessica Lind Peterson's Raina is a poet and a starry-eyed romantic. Jason Peterson's Ryan delivers pizzas on his bicycle and flunked high school English. She yearns for a love affair for the ages, akin to the storied romance between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He waxes poetic over his budding fertilizer business. Their chance meeting one rainy night over a pizza delivery sets in motion a roller-coaster courtship as hilarious as it is heartwarming.
Ryan the Pizza Man may need two acts to pursue a doubtful Raina, but Jason Peterson's endearingly quirky performance wins the audience over almost immediately. From his first appearance (in a gloriously ridiculous sight gag that I won't ruin for you), his wry delivery, spot-on comic timing and amiable stage presence lend his character immediate appeal.
Raina, however, isn't buying what Ryan's selling. Instead, she tries hard to convince herself that his rival — a restrained academic played by Andy Frye — more capably embodies her romantic ideal. No matter that he's allergic to her cat, socially awkward and downright dull.
The ensuing fireworks play out on Katie Phillips' whimsical set, a stack of angled platforms crowned by a floating montage of books, window frames and chairs that provides a clever visual counterpoint to the play's effervescent language. Sean Byrd's crisp direction and lovely musical interludes by onstage musician Blake Thomas keep this solid production moving at a nicely modulated pace.
Peterson complements Ryan and Raina's fire-and-ice courtship with a secondary couple — Raina's sister Joy (Jessie Rae Rayle) and brother-in-law Cliff (Ryan Lear) — having troubles of their own. Adept comedians both, they bring perspective and hilarity to the proceedings while demonstrating that the work of relationship-building doesn't end at the altar.
"String" is a cleverly crafted piece of work, full of poetry, wisdom and laughter, but it's the electric chemistry and comic zing the two Petersons bring to the roles of Raina and Ryan that really make this Yellow Tree production sing.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.