“For thousands of years, our ancestors have celebrated the longest night of the year as the most wonderful time of the year.”
Performer Bradley Greenwald wisely observes this midway through “The Longest Night,” his alt-Christmas cabaret that opened Thursday at Open Eye Figure Theatre, a south Minneapolis hole-in-the-wall that turns out to be a perfect venue for a very pleasant evening of wintry piano, poetry and song.
For the third time, Greenwald and pianist Sonja Thompson, who is probably best known as music associate at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis, are collaborating on the show, which features music spanning the past four centuries of winters. The names listed in the program range from Henry Purcell to Leonard Cohen, although when I say “listed,” I do mean listed.
The duo samples 17 musical works drawn from high and low culture, 10 essays and poems and, presumably, their own musings. My chief complaint is that while the artists’ names are included, the order is random and no titles are specified. This is my winter solstice discontent.
But if the idea of hearing Dar Williams’ “Christian and the Pagans” (I knew that one!) sung on the same program as one of Schubert’s “Winterreise” lieder (sorry, can’t tell you which one!) and a poem by William Blake (no clue), then “The Longest Night” is probably right up your holiday back alley. Greenwald never stoops to bashing Christmas, but he does humorously recount stories of how pre-Christian cultures celebrate the longest night of the year, from the Mayans to whoever built Stonehenge.
It’s entirely possible, Greenwald posits, that ancient people feared the days would continue getting shorter and shorter until the sun set forever. Thankfully, scientists gradually began to understand the Earth’s orbit and tilted axis, as Greenwald illustrates for his audiences with a smiling-sun puppet. This whimsical spirit informs most of the musical selections, although one number about gastrointestinal disorders seemed gratuitous, and was perhaps included only so the actor could release gas between stanzas.
Greenwald has graced stages large and small around town, from Theater Latté Da to the Jungle. His ability to subtly shift between characters is remarkable, as is his instrumental talent.
“I’m a baritone who plays baritone,” he quips early on, and pulls a large horn out from beneath a table, where you’d think he’d stash a warm cup of tea. Audiences are welcome to imbibe reasonably priced seasonal refreshments, adding to the evening’s hospitable charm. You’ll leave with a Wiccan token of appreciation for coming, and a heartfelt nonreligious blessing for the new year.