An engaging and often charming world premiere at Contraband Theatre
By Steve Callahan
A new kid has arrived on the block. It’s the Contraband Theatre, and it has opened a show at the Chapel. It’s called “See You in a Minute,” and it was written by Contraband’s founder, Jacob Juntunen. It’s a world premiere, and it’s engaging and often charming.
We find ourselves in 2041 in St. Louis—after another pandemic or two, after summer days have reached a normal temperature of 120˚, and after our habits have come to allow us to refer to a man as “they” with utter casualness.
Young Kathryn, the Education Director of “the longest-running off-Broadway theatre” in New York, has come home to St. Louis to take care of her parents during this pandemic. But she’s working remotely. Her company is coming back from its pandemic with a live performance of “Our Town.” Kathryn has to develop a killer pitch to ensure that all those high-schools sign up for tickets. But she has nothing but contempt for that hundred-year-old “snooze-fest” of a play. So, it’s all about “family”, right? But aren’t her work friends in New York her “family”?
Now, to be honest, I (and a few others) have always felt that “Our Town” is one of the greatest plays of modern theater. What human would not weep in that final scene? So it was a little difficult for me to identify with Kathryn.
Kathryn is working in her old play-room. There’s a large toy-box. She sets up her equipment to “capture” her speech to send back to her boss in New York. This clever device is controlled by gestures.
But from time to time she gets distracted into playing “Bad Dog Bear” (a childhood puppet-improv game) with her father.
I had a chance to read the script before I saw the play, and I didn’t think it out of the ordinary. It’s nicely paced and there are clever (and I fear prescient) science-fictiony bits. But it’s a bit trendy, Katie’s a bit of a cliché—the Midwestern girl desperately yearning to be back among her clutch of artistes in New York. There’s a puzzling flash-back, and I thought that the father’s insistence on playing their old puppet game when Kathryn was under such job pressure was clownish and insensitive.
But—this wonderful cast, under the very gifted direction of Ellie Schweyte, quite changed my mind. They turned a fair-to-middlin’ script into a really good evening of theatre.
We see three veteran actors and one relative newcomer.
Joseph Garner plays the father. I was impressed with him ages ago in the old Non-Prophet’s “Corleone.” He’s worked with New Line, Actors Studio, The Rep, St. Louis Shakespeare, and West End Players (“The Christians”). He’s done Off-Broadway work (including some puppetry). He’s a veteran. And he so invests himself in this role that everything he does seems real and natural.
Kelly Howe, who plays the mother, has acting, directing and dramaturg experience in Chicago. She recently did fine work in the Black Rep’s “Sweat.” She, too, totally embraces the role.
Joshua Mayfield plays Kathryn’s boss in New York. We see him only via Zoom sessions. The rich power and clarity of Mayfield’s voice reflect his deep experience in musical theater. And as an actor he is sublime. So relaxed, so utterly, casually believable!
Ricki Franklin plays Kathryn. She appears to have only a couple of St. Louis Shakespeare shows under her belt, but she holds her own beautifully amid the veteran actors around her. She fills the role with energy and stress.
The set (by Caleb Long) is simplicity itself, but effective—white frames for doors and windows. The great toy box opens up to become the parents’ bed as needed. (Very clever!) Ellie Schweyte’s sound design is particularly lovely and fitting. Fine work is also done by Carly Uding (costumes) and Morgan Brennan (lights).
Playwright Jacob Juntunen heads SIU’s MFA and PhD playwriting programs. His resume is bespangled with awards and grants and scholarly publications.
His Contraband Theatre has produced only plays by its founder, so it is, if you will, a “vanity company”. Now I have nothing against vanity companies. Our Midnight Company has given us a lot of really good theatre for decades. Some years ago a few local actors put together a company to display their own art—and they had the admirable hutzpah to name it “The Vanity Company”.
But Contraband Theatre presents itself as “a DIY art incubator outside of institutional confines—no boards or non-profit legalities.” Their motto is, “We make theatre outside of institutions and smuggle it around the world.” So it’s a renegade, a maverick, an outlaw! It flees the establishment.
But the program for this show states that “this production is made possible by the Regional Arts Commission.” Now the RAC is the very embodiment of the Arts Establishment, and I know that they don’t give away grants without at least a few tiny strings attached.
But let that be.
Like “Our Town,” “See You in a Minute” is about family and love and death. It’s worth an evening of your time. It plays at the Chapel through October 28.