Michael Elyanow’s new play “The Children” is a tricky work to pull off. This dense one-act drama involves “Matrix”-esque time travel, a mix of lifelike puppets and human actors and a narrative that blends the ancient Greek tragedy “Medea,” about a murderous mother, with a parallel, modern story line.
Such a complex script has to be staged clearly and sensitively to succeed. Director Noël Raymond proves herself up to the task in an exquisite production that opened last weekend at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.
Raymond chose an excellent cast, led by the dignified Kurt Kwan and the graceful Katie Guentzel, and featuring gorgeously gifted performers Michelle O’Neill, Tracey Maloney and Jim Lichtscheidl. Their performances make “Children” a must-see show.
Elyanow rewrites the ending of Euripides’ play, in which Medea (played briefly and frightfully by O’Neill) offs her two offspring to spite her disloyal husband.
In “Children,” the boy and girl — portrayed via puppets manipulated by Kwan and Guentzel — escape their mother’s clutches and are transported by sorcery to contemporary Athens, Maine.
Under the tenuous protection of a Woman of Corinth (Maloney), the children literally land in a storm, with folks being evacuated in the face of a hurricane. Their nursemaid (O’Neill) also is transported there, and she believes the sheriff (Lichtscheidl) supposedly guiding them to safety is actually Medea in disguise.
A parallel storyline emerges involving siblings — Kwan and Guentzel again, sans puppets — who survive a domestic incident involving another mother with murder on her mind.
The scale of the show is epic, even though the cast is small and the action takes place in Joel Sass’ compact set. The performances are sharpened by a rumbling sound score (designed by Katharine Horowitz) and muted pyrotechnics (Michael Wangen did the lights).
But what makes “The Children” sing are the performances. Performing with the tenderness of dance partners at a funeral, Kwan and Guentzel bring a serene humanity to the puppets they so movingly manipulate and to the wounded humans they invest with understanding and courage. Each movement and word seems to be a song of survival.
O’Neill, by contrast, moves around the stage with such mythic power that she seems like a creature loosed from the Greek pantheon. The performance recalls her excellent turn as Lady Macbeth at the Guthrie in 2010.
Maloney delivers classic and contemporary lines with aplomb as she shows the continuities between a past that one hopes to leave and a present that one must stubbornly fight through.
And Lichtscheidl, as the only purely contemporary character, finds comic gold as the lawman, delivering in a deadpan style that contrasts with the Greeks’ time-traveling bombast.