One of the more lucid moments in "Forget Me Not When Far Away," Kira Obolensky's insightful and incisive new play that premiered Friday at Minnesota Opera Center in Minneapolis, happens when a soldier returns to a town that has been without men for 10 years because they have all gone to war.
A worker breaks the news to limping veteran John Ploughman (Ron Menzel) that the world did not pause for him, waiting to resume its pulse and revolution until the self-styled hero has returned. That's not a message that John hears clearly, though, because other women in the man-starved town swoon over him. He is objectified in a play that inverts the male gaze and has a fair amount of turnabout.
Staged grippingly and rivetingly by Michelle Hensley in the minimalist style that is the hallmark of Ten Thousand Things theater company, "Forget Me Not" brims with Kafka-esque wit, arresting writing and thrilling performances. It is the kind of show that makes theatergoing a pleasure.
John has come home to find Flora Crisp (Sun Mee Chomet), a woman he mistreated when he was the cock-of-the-walk and she was the homely dreamer trying to catch his eye. She kept up with him when he went away, writing him letters that sustained him while he tromped through trenches in battle. Now he's back and wants to find her, perhaps to thank her, or apologize.
John must adjust not only to the changed town, but also prove that he's alive, since the town crier listed him among the dead.
While the action orbits John, embodied with wounded swagger by Menzel, the play is very much about the women who run this world. Using wigs and gestures, the five female actors play nearly two dozen roles in the two-act play, from a postal worker to a government worker, from a morgue attendant to a fortuneteller. Their quick changes can be dizzying, but also a pleasure. It's like watching a dream team play your favorite sport.
Annie Enneking's roles include humorless government worker Mabel and a cold-eyed Chanteuse (she sings accusatory lyrics that John takes personally). Elise Langer injects lots of deadpan hysterics into the Town Crier and Louise, a millennial Valley Girl, while eliciting loads of laughs as John's unknown, wild-eyed son, Atlas. Karen Wiese-Thompson's characters include Detective Early, hired by John to find Flora, and the Dentist. In both roles, she projects power and seriousness, with a side of irony.
Sha Cage's Sheila has the hots for John, and the actor makes us feel her passion. Cage also plays a geeky daughter, Portia, and the town's Fortune Teller, a role she injects with mystical amusement.
Chomet covers Flora Crisp with such grief, the character feels like a dark, wet curtain. Chomet shows her range when she plays the matronly Barkeep and the no-nonsense mother, Connie.
Menzel's John is the least interesting character, in large part because he has been frozen by his memories and shocked by his experience. But that's a story that we know well from all the plays, films and books that explore the lives of veterans.
"Forget Me Not" is about the world that grows in their absence, and the wounds that heal or simply stay sore. Playwright Obolensky has invested the script with lots of asides to the audience, which adds to its energy and also highlights the vertiginous skills of this expert cast.