It was supposed to be just one more stop on Illusion Theater's state tour of "My Antonia." But from the moment visitors entered New Prague High School last Sunday, evidence abounded that the afternoon performance had morphed into "A Celebration of Heritage" for a community steeped in its Czech and Slovak roots -- with drama, dancing, desserts and displays all decked out in the school's theater and commons.

"This turned into a cultural event," said Illusion's Bonnie Morris.

The play, adapted by Allison Moore from Willa Cather's 1918 novel about a Czech immigrant in a small town, was performed at Illusion in February 2010. The subject material invited a statewide tour, and Illusion applied for grants from the Minnesota Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund. The state arts board distributed $1.7 million to 54 grantees in 2010 as part of the touring program, which enables individuals and organizations to send art across Minnesota.

"One of the reasons we created this program is that some communities have a lot of arts activities and others not so many," said Sue Gens, arts board executive director. "And the idea was, if there is this touring program, maybe some of that barrier of geography can be overcome."

New Prague was not on Illusion's original schedule, so Amy Eich, community services director for New Prague Schools, asked for a date. After all, Cather's book centers on the Bohemian Antonia -- who happens to be portrayed in this production by New Prague native Katie Guentzel (for which she received an Ivey Award).

"It seemed natural," said Eich. "The experience of New Prague settlers ties in with Antonia's experiences."

Residents read the novel, a professor was brought in from Mankato to discuss the literary themes and the Czech Heritage Club was invited to put up historical displays. Along the way, the Domaci Czech Folk Dancers, the St. Paul Czech & Slovak Folk Dancers and Debbie Jindra, the reigning Miss Czech Slovak Minnesota Queen, agreed to perform.

"It has a lasting impact when a community is able to take a performance or an art experience and connect it as broadly as possible," said Illusion's Michael Robins. "That's the idea of the Cultural Heritage Fund; they use our performance as a catalyst for other experiences."


The New Prague High School auditorium was nearly full for "My Antonia." Guentzel -- who later said this was sort of a "surreal" event -- gave a spirited, tomboyish portrayal of the title character. Cather's story focuses on the Czech emigré and a childhood friend, Jim -- who narrates the tale on the advent of his return after 20 years to the small town where he and Antonia grew up. A poignant charm emerged throughout the story as Jim and Antonia, fast friends as kids, diverge into different lives.

"I wished I had brought a handkerchief," said Mitch Marlow, who asked Guentzel afterward to autograph his program. "That idea of a lifelong friendship, how important it is to have a really good friend from childhood. I felt like I was there, I was a part of it. It ripped my heart out, in a good way."

Bill Belkengren approached and told Guentzel, "You probably don't remember because I'm sure you weren't born yet, but I was in a play with your mother long ago." He said he had folders full of souvenirs if she wanted to have a look later. Belkengren said he'd seen the advertisement for the play in the local newspaper, read the book and came out for the performance.

"She did a fantastic job," he said.

Guentzel hugged two town acquaintances -- "my best friend since I was 2 years old and the mother of a boy named Chad who I knew through childhood, and she said his wife just had a baby" -- and then she joined about 250 other folks out on the commons for the folk dancing and desserts for both Czechs (kolaces) and Slovaks (potica).

Jindra curtsied as the audience applauded for the dances she performed in the Miss Czech-Slovak Queen contest. She said this would be her last official appearance before giving up the crown April 9 at the state pageant, at the Montgomery American Legion Hall.

There will be other occasions for the Czech community to gather in New Prague. Deb Ziskovsy, president of the Czech Heritage Club, mentioned the Dozinsky Harvest Festival in September and the European Christmas event in December. A theater troupe coming through was a new event, though. Eich, watching the dancers, agreed.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this community," she said. "For many of the people here, this story is the story of their parents or grandparents."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299