Patrons planning to attend a preview performance of a new adaptation of “Medea” at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis got a shock Thursday night. The preview had been canceled. So is the entire run of the drama.
While shows sometimes close before opening on Broadway, it’s a blue-moon rarity in Twin Cities theater for a company to rehearse a production and cancel it before previews.
The venue was rented for this production of “Medea” by New Epic Theater, a bold and brash new company that has attracted considerable attention and respect over the past three years, even as it has struggled with start-up issues.
The show was to star Guthrie leading lady Michelle O’Neill (“The Royal Family”) in the title role and veteran actor Mark Benninghofen, a leading man of the Twin Cities stage who most recently was in “Six Degrees of Separation” at Theatre Latte Da. O’Neill’s 13-year-old daughter was also in the production.
Director and theater founder Joseph Stodola had a vision for the “Medea” production that included using a pool of water near electric circuits, according to Benninghofen. The actors saw that feature for the first time at Wednesday’s rehearsal.
Actor Benninghofen, who is a member of the Actors Equity Union, said that he recognized immediate safety risks.
“We knew that there was going to be a water feature but we didn’t know there would be a 30-foot long exposed electric circuit along the drip edge of this pool which had three- to 4,000 gallons of water,” he said Friday.
Benninghofen consulted with union reps, leaders in the field and the fire marshal, then finally blew the whistle on the production.
“Anyone who’s been around the stage for a while knows that electricity and water will always find each other and you lose trust in the producers when there’s such a flagrant safety issue,” he said.
Benninghofen, who also is a businessman and father, did not want to call any attention to himself. He enlisted O'Neill in the decision. He said that the producers did not offer to make adjustments for safety.
Stodola issued a statement late Friday:
"It came to our attention yesterday that the proximity of technical elements to a rain effect that was to be used during the performance created an unsafe and unacceptable environment for the actors. Therefore, the production was immediately shut down. Thankfully, no one was injured. We are grateful to Mark Benninghofen for looking out for his fellow actors."
New Epic won an Ivey Award, the Twin Cities version of the Tonys, in 2016 for its acting ensemble of “Now or Later,” the company’s entry into the Minnesota Fringe Festival.
In the past, the company has struggled with finances. In 2015, actors in its production of “Doubt” found that their paychecks were bouncing.
“They’ve had great artistic, imaginative ideas, but they didn’t have the money to support their vision, and they needed to tell people that upfront,” said Austene Van, who acted in the production that was headlined by Claudia Wilkens. “To be an actor means making some sacrifices, but you can’t mess with folks’ money.”
The website for New Epic now says that it is “under construction.”
“All of this is heartbreaking, to say the least,” Mary Kelley Leer, owner of the Lab, said Friday. “Last night I gave Joe a hug. It’s a loss all around — for us as a company, for my staff, and for them. Everyone’s out of a month of income. But we continue.”
Benninghofen said that he did not want to discourage new companies from starting or from taking risks.
“There’s nothing more exciting that young companies in the Twin Cities,” said Benninghofen. “But young companies should learn from the older companies and should avail themselves of the resources that are widely available to ensure the safety of their actors, especially when you've got a 13-year-old girl who's supposed to splash in the water near an open 30-foot long electric circuit. That’s a recipe for disaster.”