Most of Amy Rummenie’s attention is consumed by Walking Shadow, the small theater company that she heads with John Heimbuch and David Pisa. Rummenie directs nearly all of the troupe’s productions and reads voraciously in search of good scripts.
Rummenie wasn’t searching for freelance work, but she found it when Richard Cook, artistic director at Park Square, asked if she might like to stage “The School for Lies,” David Ives’ adaptation of Molière’s “The Misanthrope.” The play opens in previews on Friday.
Cook saw Walking Shadow’s “The Ideal Husband,” which Rummenie directed in February, 2012. He directed the Oscar Wilde play himself years ago and knew the script’s tricks and problems.
“He thought we tackled them so well that when he came upon this show [“School”], he asked me if I was interested,” Rummenie said. She was.
Rummenie said Ives’ play is “99 percent zany comedy” but that a still, beating heart exists at its core.
Molière’s principal character, Alceste, still drives Ives’ adaptation. Renamed Frank, he’s a cranky idealist who dislikes the niceties required by 17th-century French society. Frank’s bitter heart is softened by his affection for Célimène, whom he prefers above other potential mates. Plot devices manipulate these basic facts into a sense of crisis and resolution.
John Middleton plays Frank, and Kate Guentzel is Célimène in Park Square’s production, which also includes Skyler Nowinski, John Catron, Andrea Wollenberg and Anna Hickey.
Critics in New York and Chicago have suggested that Ives’ signal achievement here is his constant wordplay, spit out in rhyming couplets that tick-tock to an iambic clock. That’s the neat trick that’s gotten all the attention, but Rummenie hopes her production finds a prevailing reality separate from the verbal rhythm.
“The piece is about what’s beneath the pomp and glittering artifice,” Rummenie said, careful not to give away any plot points. “It’s still 1666, with flying canapés all the time, but he’s also brought characters we care about.”
Cook had seen “The School for Lies” at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and found himself “rooting for the lovers,” which isn’t always the case with Molière, whose genius is for satire and farce, not sentiment. Ives, best known recently for his “Venus in Fur,” has tweaked the master’s work with just enough humanity.
Cook also liked the costumes and some of the sets at Chicago well enough to rent them for the Park Square production.
“I came to rehearsal and we already had a full costume design and these 15-foot-tall doors to incorporate into our set,” Rummenie said.
‘I’m a little nervous’
Rummenie, who grew up in Richfield, studied theater at Minnesota State University, Mankato, but said her real education came through working on shows in the Twin Cities. She spent eight years at Children’s Theatre Company behind the scenes (where she met Pisa), and sharpened her directorial eye with work at the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
“The Fringe was our education in producing and seeing what audiences want — and building a sense of fun,” she said.
Rummenie and Heimbuch were high school friends (now married), and with Pisa they decided they had enough gumption and idealism to form Walking Shadow a decade ago. The company has become a leading light in the small-theater firmament.
Rummenie is a smart and articulate director, her productions clearly coming from a point of view and usually thick with supporting elements. Even though she has a fine eye for what actors should look like onstage, she by no means likes the limelight. When it’s brought up that she’s never been seen on stage, Rummenie laughs.
“I hope you never do; I don’t like being on stage at all,” she said. “I love seeing how the stories work, how the dramaturgy works.”
The gig at Park Square has her “a little nervous,” she said. “I have a lot of personal stake in Walking Shadow shows, because they speak to an idea that we want to explore. But on the inverse, there is a lot more attention when I work outside our company.”