Merging gangster noir with physical-based theater seems a hefty ambition. That was the aim of director Diogo Lopes when he created “105 Proof” with Transatlantic Love Affair.
Take the chewy fiction of something like “Public Enemy” and apply the deliberate fakery of devised theater — actors striking postures to create a vehicle or a store counter, a screen door, a picture frame — to give the live stage enough imagination for action-packed gunfights and multiple locations.
Lopes’ tale of a country bumpkin turned bootleg boss was a welcome triumph among the middling hash of the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival. The Transatlantic ensemble has brought the work to the bare stage of the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, where it opened Saturday night.
Salt-and-pepper-gray actor Eric Marinus steps forward to narrate the tale of his character, a kingpin who dodged bullets on his way to the top. Nick Wolf plays the younger version of “Jonathan” and Marinus picks up several other assignments. Everyone does — that’s the Transatlantic way.
Jonathan schemes to sell his grandpa’s moonshine for $3 a jar. Chicago gangsters catch wind of this hayseed pinching their territory but they decide to work with the young man. Faster than Al Capone would say, “You get a lot more from a kind word and a gun than from a kind word alone,” Johnny is working for the mob.
The story swings back and forth between Chicago and rural Illinois, in scenes that primarily give the eight-person cast a chance to show off their characters. In the end, our hero (antihero?) is King of the Mason Jar Booze empire.
The narrative is engaging in its pulpy, low-stakes way. Most of the characters are ciphers lifted from gangster movies so we need not shed a tear when some fool gets capped (with one exception). The caricatures are well observed but slim.
Performance style is Transatlantic’s calling card. The troupe is skilled and for the most part disciplined in its pantomime. Heather Bunch, who has been at this a long time, stands out, as does Derek Lee Miller, another veteran of the devised-work community.
Guitarist Dustin Tessier and drummer Adam Patterson deserve a nod for providing the musical drama and Barry Browning’s lighting effectively marks transitions.
However, director Lopes lets some key moments get away. The shuffle of actors playing multiple characters in the same scene gets muddy. Too, the dramatic choreography does not march as crisply as it should. Other small tricks seem clever at first but can get annoying on repetition.
This physically devised style is not for everyone. It can lurch perilously close to cute “exercise.” Transatlantic Love Affair has built its reputation by holding our narrative interest — that is, not relying simply on the craft of physical storytelling.
If you’ve drunk this kind of stuff before, this one is worth a taste.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.