Imagine sitting in a volcanic area where hot steam, under severe pressure, erupts unexpectedly around you. That sensation, of tension and release, permeates “[Almost Equal To],” Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s 2014 one-act that’s in an engaging production at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis.
In the play, a quintet of actors portrays a variegated lot of more than 20 roles. The characters, from actor Randy Reyes’ liquor store customer to Paul de Cordova’s historical personage Casparus Van Houten, from Sun Mee Chomet’s job applicant to Tracey Maloney’s teenage brother, are well-sketched and clearly delineated through costumes, gait, verbal tics and other characteristics.
That the talented acting ensemble, also including Jay Eisenberg, plays so many parts fits perfectly with the theme of the play, which addresses the effects of the Western world’s overarching economic system. Capitalism chews some people up and rejects others altogether.
Khemiri’s layered play, directed unflinchingly and with a keen sense of humor by Noël Raymond, deftly addresses a dry subject with real-world impact. The economic insecurity at the heart of “Equal To” is the same one that fueled the bitterness and acrimony that expressed itself around last year’s election.
The stylistic choice of having male roles played by female actors and female roles by men adds to the sense of flux as well as the show’s playfulness. De Cordova’s granny glasses are funny. Reyes, also, is a stitch as a lady at an employment agency.
The production employs a variety of storytelling modes, from TED Talk-style lectures to dramatized scenes in a home to a liquor store where people are faithful about buying lottery tickets.
The clever multipurpose set, designed by Christopher Heilman, elaborates on the play’s message about life’s hidden complexities. What looks like a wall opens to reveal functional compartments. It’s heady but not off-putting.
And “Equal To” has a first-rate cast whose little performance gems accumulate into something shiny and multifaceted. Chomet plays a thought loosed from the subconscious in one scene, running onstage with arms flailing like an enraged tarantula. Then she quickly disappears, leaving you entertained but also asking, what just happened?
Chomet’s roles also include the embodied voice in the head of Martina, a hungry character played by Maloney. Both Martina and her voice are dressed identically (costume designer Amber Brown outfitted them cheerily). Martina must decide if she’s going to lie to get what she wants. The voice in her head yells at her to keep on the straight and narrow.
The production hits the sweet spot for Pillsbury House, which has produced socially engaged and engaging works since 1992 in its 99-seat auditorium. Despite the small size, the company continues to have a strong impact as it engages contemporary issues. “Equal To” shows humans under an economic system with little in the way of answers for their discontent.