"Song of Extinction" by Theater Latté Da at the Guthrie Theater: Intelligently designed

March 3, 2011.By Christopher Kehoe, TC Daily Planet.

The beginning is the end and the end is the beginning in Theater Latté Da's Song of Extinction.  But that's kind of the point.

Song of Extinction, presented by Theater Latté Da in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio through March 20th, opens with the strained father-son relationship of Ellery and Max Forrestal at the breakfast table. Ellery is absorbed in his nature conservancy work and Max, practicing his upright bass, threatens to eat the last of the house's actual food: a can of sauerkraut. Both of the Forrestal men are working to appease authority figures: Ellery tries to keep generic corporate bigshot Gill Morris from destroying the Bolivian rainforest while Max has a mammoth of a biology term paper due for Mr. Phan. We also learn that mom Lily is dying of cancer in a hospital bed, attended by Dr. Dorsey. As Lily's condition deteriorates, Max runs away from home and Mr. Phan unexpectedly finds himself as her last bedside witness.

song of extinction, presented at the guthrie theater through march 20. for tickets ($18-$30) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

Playwright E.M. Lewis's idea here is that extinction and evolution are two sides of the same coin, and that the one is the necessary result of the other. The show is certainly food for thought, subtly weaving itself into unexpected places while mercifully refraining from beating its themes into the audience's brains. Lewis writes her action in a very specific timeframe: the cancer diagnosis is irrefutable, the deforestation has already begun. The guillotine is released before we even know it's there, and the audience watches as the family unknowingly braces itself for the extinction of life as they know it, only to discover the evolution of their life painfully waiting for them on the other side. It's some really slick stuff.

Sadly, the inspiration of the larger work doesn't translate to the moment-by-moment action, as the scenes themselves are variable in quality. At best, they're poignant, funny, simple, and rich. At worst, Song of Extinction begins to feel like a bad episode of Dawson's Creek. The eager freshman oncologist was convinced he'd find the cure to cancer in his very first patient. Really?  The child bass prodigy conducts music shirtless in the night rain because he needed "to feel the music." Really?

Peter Rothstein's direction thankfully keeps the show on track. From the early beat-keeping among a metronome, an EKG, and a ball-snappy-desktop-thing, it's apparent that Rothstein is here to help the show, not break it. The scenes spill across open playing areas, but the transitions are never sloppy, even when the finished scene lingers for a bit as the new scene establishes. His cast is also a force to be reckoned with: David Mura successfully plumbs deep into the complex Mr. Phan, Carla Noack will make you forget she's chained to a bed for the entirety of the show, and John Middleton and Garry Geiken give playfully excellent performances as characters who, truth be told, aren't written all that well. Special mention should also be given to high-schooler Dan Piering, who not only can act his way out of a paper bag but can also play one mean cello.

Song of Extinction's technical support is equally solid, especially Michael Hoover's chameleon set which hides a shadowy mural for Marcus Dilliard's lights to reshape into several different looks. Timing-wise, though, the back wall pulses to life during a character's most intimate monologues (usually Mr. Phan's), pitting what the audience sees against what the audience hears. If you're really locked into what the biology teacher has to say, then it's not an issue. If, on the other hand, you're more visually inclined, expect to lose some key moments in the history of the Khmer Rouge.

There are two mentionable points (both completely circumstantial) that folks should be aware of before seeing Song of Extinction. One: it's not a musical, despite having "song" in the title and being produced by Theater Latté Da. I found out after the show that I wasn't the only one to be caught a little off-guard. Two: Song of Extinction unexpectedly revisits the Twin Cities' 2010 "forum on race in casting" debacle in a uniquely balanced way. The biology teacher, Khim Phan, is the only non-White body onstage, yet his Cambodian heritage doesn't factor into his character until halfway through the play. In this sense, an audience member can see both sides of this still-largely-untalked-about issue in a single performance: first, a talented actor who happens to be Asian-American playing a character of indiscriminate race, and then a necessarily Cambodian character which needed to inform Latté Da's initial casting process. Both halves of the performance show the different ethics of color-blind casting's two camps, and it inadvertently proves to be a great case study for representational politics...if you're into that sort of thing. If not, you'll never even know it was there.

Latté Da's Song of Extinction, while not without flaws, is a show well worth your time. The weakest link here is the script, though the show's concept is excellent. The idea that our strongest chapters begin at our most broken moments is wickedly universal, but here we get a honed example in the Forrestal family and their emotional mentor Khim Phan. The petri dish begins with an unfinished father and his volatile son and, by play's end, we've glimpsed into the next evolution of their relationship, but not without pain, not without fear, and not without loss. Through all the muck and listlessness that can beset our daily lives, Song of Extinction tells us with a biological certainty that we can all evolve into something better because of it.

Pure and simple: Peter Rothstein’s modest direction of “Song of Extinction” works.

March 3, 2011.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Simplicity is greatly underestimated in theatrical virtuosity. The trick is to not starve your work of its emotion and its power, yet craft lean scenes that don't waste our energy.

Playwright E.M. Lewis accomplishes all this in "Song of Extinction." Director Peter Rothstein's production, which Theater Latté Da opened Saturday at the Guthrie Studio, honors the delicacy of Lewis' work, and the result is 90 minutes of poignant worthiness.

This is Rothstein's second small jewel of the year -- the first being his swift and sharp staging of "Doubt" for Ten Thousand Things. Usually considered a fine director of musicals, Rothstein shows us his articulate understanding of drama that gets inside the human psyche.

"Song of Extinction" is a dramatic triptych, centered on 15-year-old Max Forrestal (Dan Piering). Max is a brilliant cellist and budding composer, but his life is falling apart: His mother, Lily (Carla Noack), is dying in a hospital bed. His father, Ellery (John Middleton), is distracted by his own drama -- trying to preserve an insect he discovered in the Colombian rain forest. And Max's biology teacher, Khim Phan (David Mura), wrestles with ghosts from the Cambodian holocaust as he muscles through a unit on extinction.

Each of these scenarios might drip with melodrama were it separated and stretched into "very special" TV drama. Mixed together in spare doses, however, the alchemy creates something more than the elements.

Rothstein restrains his actors and lets the story breathe. For example, Max is missing at the very moment his mother passes away. When Middleton's Ellery finds him, there is no overwrought torrent of tears. Just a simple acknowledgment of an agony that is too deep to express. Middleton conveys the weary desperation of a man whose life work on three levels is unraveling -- a mirror of Max's quandary.

Mura's background as a poet informs his portrayal of Phan, his phrasing and rhythms landing precisely on Lewis' words. He orates memories of the Cambodian killing fields, his assimilation in the United States and frustration that Americans can't imagine extinction for themselves. He, on the other hand, is the lone survivor of his family and understands the fragility of existence.

Noack has a flinty resignation as Lily, but also some wild-eyed morphine-fueled moments in which her bed is transformed into a vessel floating through a river of hallucination.

As Max, Piering avoids so many of the "young performer" potholes that exist when a role requires such emotional investment. Not to mention he plays his cello beautifully.

Technically and scenically -- with music undergirding the story and mood -- this production also has an economy of construction that again allows the story to tell itself.

It's really that simple.

Song of Extinction at the Dowling Studio: Examining the death of a family

March 2, 2011.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Young teenager Max Forrestal is a mess. He shows up to school day after day in the same dirty clothes. He is rake thin, as if he hasn't eaten in days. He appears content to hide in the back of the class, duct-taped cello case at his side, listening to his iPod rather than the teacher—when he bothers to show up.

Most of his teachers are willing to just ignore the symptoms of a student in crisis, except for biology instructor Khim Phan. At the same age as Max, Khim lived through Cambodia's killing fields, and he recognizes someone on the verge of a personal extinction.

Their relationship lives at the core of E.M. Lewis's Song of Extinction, which—despite some shortcomings—gets a powerful and moving reading from Theatre Latte Da. That's fostered in part by remarkable performances from Dan Piering as Max and David Mura as Khim, along with a staging that never blinks in the face of deep pain.

Max's problems are fueled by his parents. His father, Ellery (John Middleton), is obsessed with saving a species of insect from extinction at the hands of an "evil" developer (Gary Geiken, whose character is bad because, in part, he wears very ugly pants while playing golf) and barely acknowledges his son. His mother, Lily (Carla Noack), is in the final stages of cancer, and her extinction weighs heavily on Max's mind.

Lewis does everything short of underlining these themes onstage, and that sometimes makes for clunky drama. The evil developer is the worst example of this, doing nothing more than serving as a point of conflict than being a fully realized character like the rest of the cast.

Still, the core drama of a family facing their own Armageddon fuels the play, and Lewis writes with a deft touch. There's no lingering, warmhearted goodbye here, just the harsh fluorescent hospital light and a doctor (Matt Rein) who appears as lost as the Forrestals.

Making his professional debut, Piering gives a natural, nuanced performance as Max. His anger and pain are always near the surface and explode at the smallest provocation, but Piering never moves into melodrama. His focus fuels several of the show's best moments, especially the final minutes, when the cello comes out of the case and Max finally is able to get beyond his anger and into his sorrow. The piece, composed by longtime Latte Da music director Denise Prosek, reflects that perfectly, while Piering plays it as Max would—full of anger and passion.

The rest of the cast delve deep into their characters as well. Mura's lonely biology teacher is so haunted by his past that he has been left just a shell, someone who inhabits a home full of empty "spare rooms." The journey of Noack's Lily takes her into a drug-fueled trip back to Bolivia and then, with the help of Mura's gentle voice, on to her own final journey.

As you can guess, Song of Extinction isn't a joy ride, but director Peter Rothstein gives the piece his signature stamp, helping the audience find the real humanity behind the stark hospital room and lonely home that Max inhabits.

Unexpectedly subversive: ‘Hair at the Orpheum; Latte Da’s ‘Song of Extinction’

March 2, 2011.By Max Sparber, MinnPost.

I don’t have more than a few paragraphs to talk about Theater Latté Da’s production of “Song of Extinction,” which is fine, as, at the moment, I don’t have much to say about it, except that you should see it. I’m a bit surprised to be making the suggestion, as the play does something I think plays often do very poorly right now – deal with terminal illness. And so we have a story about a gifted musical prodigy (Dan Piering) with a dying mother (Carla Noack) and a distant father (John Middleton), and there are hundreds of plays with almost exactly this sort of set up, and they usually go miserably wrong. In them, dying ennobles the terminal patient, who dispenses wisdom as her family is brought to a theatrical state of grace by experience.

Anyone who has actually been through the protracted death of a loved one knows this is a closer to wish-fulfillment than reality. Dying tends to make both the sick and the well miserable, and has a horrific knack at bringing out long-suppressed or dormant animosity. People can behave awfully toward each other when they are on their deathbed, or near the deathbed of another, and the experience of quietus is rarely one of grace and nobility, but terror and bewilderment. So it is to playwright E.M. Lewis’ great credit that the play she gives us is closer to the reality of life’s terminus than the fantasy of it. The prodigy suffers, his grades plummet, and he barely has the energy to change his clothes. The father remains distant, funneling his suffering into his efforts to prevent the extinction of a species of third-world insect. And the mother is, in essence, abandoned by these two. It’s terribly downbeat, but honestly so. And, just now, when theater’s audience is aging to the point where they are liking facing their own parents’ death, or their own, this approach is, to quote Time Magazine, more daring than ever.

All the right notes Theater Latte Da’s “Song of Extinction” a touching triumph

March 2, 2011.By Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press.

The avoidance of pain is a core human instinct. But to what lengths will people go to dodge difficult truths? In "Song of Extinction" — a very good new play by EM Lewis — almost all of the characters are trying to bury their pain in something else, be it music, teaching or even entomology.

But these truths eventually must be confronted, and when the characters do so, it turns into powerful theater. "Song of Extinction" is receiving its area premiere from Theater Latte Da in a production filled with compassion for its characters and a delicate touch that makes it a very moving drama.

While Theater Latte Da is known for producing musicals, this play is light on music, most of it emanating from the cello of Dan Piering. He plays Max, a high school student whose mother is in her final days of a battle with cancer. Music is his escape, while his father retreats into an obsession with saving a species of insect he has discovered.

Filled with anger and despair, Max is a prime candidate for self-destruction until his Cambodian biology teacher intervenes. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Khim Phan employs straight talk and as much love as his damaged heart can offer to try to get Max's mind back on his schoolwork.

To the credit of author Lewis and director Peter Rothstein, no point is belabored, no audience member bludgeoned with a message. For a work with so many layers, it's nevertheless almost minimalist in structure, its dialogue convincingly realistic, its tone admirably restrained.

Latte Da's production features six strong performances, particularly from David Mura as the teacher who provides the work's philosophical center and Carla Noack, who makes the emotional and physical pain of Max's mother equally evident. But also compelling are Piering and John Middleton, who have the toughest terrain to traverse as a father and son responding to their helplessness by lashing out at one another.

Only Lewis' decision to make an eco-unfriendly CEO such a cartoonish villain keeps the work from being an unqualified triumph. But it's pretty darn close.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at rhubbard@ pioneerpress.com

What: Theater Latte Da's production of "Song of Extinction" by EM Lewis

When: 7:30 p.m. today-Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday; through March 20

Where: The Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.

Tickets: $30-$22, available at 612-377-2224 or guthrietheater.org

Capsule: A strong new play, a moving production.

Song Of Extinction by Theater Latté Da performing on the Guthrie’s Dowling Stage

February 26, 2011.By John Olive, HowWasTheShow.

Normally Latté Da specializes in intelligent but feel-good music theater: All Is Calm, La Bohème, The Full Monty, etc.  But here they are, tackling E.M. Lewis‘s challenging straight play (such an odd term) Song Of Extinction (Theater Latté Da performing on the Guthrie’s Dowling Stage, through March 20).  Song Of Extinction is a fierce meditation on death, species extinction, grief, familial dysfunction, adolescent anger, and the redemptive power of music.  It’s often frustrating – but, really, what truly ambitious play isn’t?  This piece is intense, rich, affecting.

Playwright Lewis approaches her story with cinematic theatricality: scenes are short, often just fragments, woven together with music, dreamy lights (and harsh fluorescents), flashbacks, soliloquies.  All this imparts an hallucinatory intensity to the proceedings.

Lily Forrestal is dying, of cancer.  Her husband Ellery, perhaps as a defense, obsesses on the fate of a Bolivian insect, about to become extinct, and thus ignores his wife’s physical deterioration, as well as his 15 year old son Max’s building anger.  Left to his own devices, unfed and dirty,  Max (with his ever-present cello) washes up in the office of Khim Phan, a high school biology teacher, a man caught up in his grief for his family, slaughtered thirty plus years earlier in the Cambodian killing fields.  I will refrain from describing in detail what happens when Pham visits the Forrestals in the hospital late at night.  Know that it’s surprising and highly effective.

All in all, marvelous stuff.  But this play is tricky: the heavy use of theatrical techniques makes us pull back, whereas the story makes us want to lean in, embrace the characters.  This creates a tension which, for the most part, director Peter Rothstein (also Latté Da’s Artistic Director) handles well.

On the surface, David Mura (an accomplished writer, it should be mentioned – Turning Japanese) gives us a Khim Phan easing through a pleasant and rumpled middle age, with dorky cardigans and corduroys.  But Mura also plays his character with an accented reserve and an awkwardness that vividly delineates Phan’s overwhelming survivor guilt and heartbreaking loneliness.  Mura lends the play understated emotional resonance.

Also first rate are John Middleton and Carla Noack as the Forrestals.  Both players are tall and lanky and both discover pitch-perfect detail.  Middleton strikes a lovely balance between Ellery’s confusion and his love for his family.  Similarly, Noack’s Lily faces death with a combination of Wit-like courage and understandable terror.  These pros anchor the cast.

Anyone raising a teen-ager knows how illogically volatile they can be and Dan Piering, as Max, captures this gorgeously.  He also plays a mean cello.  Good performances are given by Garry Geiken and Matt Rein in small but important roles.

Recommended – but not for audiences looking for mild post-prandial entertainment.  If this is what you want, I would send you off to the Jungle for Shirley Valentine.  Go to Song Of Extinction hungry and then head out for a post-play meal/discussion with your friends.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

Latte Da explores ‘theater with music’ in ‘Song of Extinction’

February 21, 2011.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

As a company, Theater Latte Da has always been dedicated to producing high-quality musical theater. That just doesn't mean the likes of Gypsy, The Full Monty, or last year's Violet. Latte Da's past work includes several productions of All is Calm, where the music of the trenches is merged with a story about the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Their latest piece, Song of Extinction, follows a similar path. Described as a drama with music, the E.M. Lewis show examines the life of teenager Max, a gifted musician who is spiraling into depression, and the refugee biology teacher who helps him back from the abyss.The show opens this weekend at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio.

"As part of our selection process, we ask a series of questions: Is musical instrumental to the storytelling? Does story and music intersect in new and provocative ways? Is the writer venturing into new, adventurous territory? Does it have something important to say to this community at this time? Does it move me?" says Peter Rothstein, the artistic director of Theater Latte Da and the show's director. "Song of Extinction does all of these things in profound ways. I wasn't aware of E.M. Lewis's work beforehand, but I became an instant fan."

In the play, Max's world is rocked by his mother's terminal illness. His father attempts to save a small section of land in Bolivia from developers to protect a rare insect from extinction. Max himself can't finish a biology paper on the same subject. It takes his teacher, a Cambodian refugee "who knows a thing or two about extinction," Rothstein notes, to reach out to the teenager.

"At the center of the play is Max, a 15-year-old cellist. He is also a composer, but no one--not even himself--is aware of his extraordinary gift," Rothstein says.

The production is the regional premiere of Lewis's play, which earned the 2009 Steinberg/American Theatre Critics' Association New Play Award. The playwright used several initiatives to bridge science and theater as her starting point.

"Music steps in when words fail to capture an emotion, an idea, the power of the human spirit. We have approached the entire production as though it were a symphony; a visual, emotional and visceral composition with the final movement culminating in Max's 'Song of Extinction.'"

Human stories, big issues

February 18, 2011.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Theater Latté Da takes on a play informed by music, but it's not your standard musical theater.

Read your e-mails. Peter Rothstein was browsing a post from publisher Samuel French, chock full of two-sentence descriptions of available plays, when something caught his eye. "Song of Extinction" mixed music, science, personal loss and a father-son relationship. It went to places that Rothstein's Theater Latté Da normally does not go. He will direct a production that opens Saturday at the Guthrie's Studio.

Written by E.M. Lewis, "Song of Extinction" won the 2009 new play award from the American Theater Critics Association, following its Los Angeles premiere. It focuses on a young cellist whose mother is dying of cancer, and a survivor of the Cambodian holocaust who takes a sympathetic interest in the boy. The boy's father, a botanist, is fighting a developer whose plans for a South American rain forest would destroy the last insects of a particular species.

Throughout, the boy plays his cello until at play's end, he performs the title song in its entirety.

"It's epic and claustrophobic," Rothstein said, referring to the global and personal expressions of loss. "I think of the whole production as a fugue with a constant heartbeat of time."

Latté Da's production features poet David Mura as Kim Phan, a biology professor who befriends 15-year-old Max (newcomer Dan Piering). John Middleton is Max's father, and Karla Noack plays the ailing mother.

Lewis, who teaches at Princeton University, has a history of writing about heavy subjects. "Heads" was an Iraq war hostage drama that won the 2008 Primus Prize for an emerging female theater artist. Her first play, "Infinite Black Suitcase," focused on grief and redemption in rural Oregon, her home state. She wasn't setting out, with "Song of Extinction," to write something about death, necessarily.

"I wondered, is there a science play inside me?" she said. "All these characters dropped into my head once I thought of science -- interlocking stories of extinction of species, and a biology professor dealing with extinction at a local level."

Lewis also had specific ideas about certain aspects of those characters. She wanted Max to be a composer, gifted in music. And she wanted Kim to be a survivor of genocide.

Her subconscious reasons never made themselves terribly evident to herself, nor did these impulses clarify who should be the protagonist.

"It's hard for me to say who the main character is," she said. "Kim is the storyteller, but the focal point is this boy and what's going on with him."

Extinction Distinction: WHS Junior lands big Guthrie gig

January 26, 2011.By Caroline Rode, Trojan Tribune.

Hood up, eyes down, the young man hacks furiously at the strings of his cello. Many things are familiar; the young man is Dan Piering (11), the cello is his, and the setting is in the classroom of AP Biology teacher Leslie Swiggum. Everything else is theatre: in the mind of the viewer, it’s all real.

Piering will be performing in Song of Extinction with Theater Latté Da artistic director, Peter Rothstein, February 26th to March 20th at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio in Minneapolis.

After Piering participated in the musical “The Who’s Tommy” at the Children’s Theatre this summer, Rothstein gave him a script and told him that he should audition.

“When Rothstein mentioned that the show would be performed at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, I knew it wasn’t normal,” said Piering.

Piering explained the show is set in a high school. “My character’s name is Max Forrestal and he’s a musical prodigy,” said Piering.

Max is a teenager who is having difficulties at home. His mother is suffering with cancer. However, Max’s father is so busy with work that Max starts to fade into the background. Max, now having suicidal thoughts, has no one to turn to.

One person does notice him; his biology Mr. Phan is struggling with his own inner demons. The two form an unlikely alliance.

“Max is the only teenager in the show,” said Piering. Because there was only one role, the competition for the part was intense.

“First there were nine of us, then at callbacks, Peter had us read a monologue from the show. The last few were swear words. That made the auditions much more tense,” Piering.

“The rehearsal process is going to be intense,” said Piering. “I have to have all my lines memorized before we start practices next month. That’s different from productions at the high school, because we get our scripts during the first practice,” said Piering.

Being a part of a professional show is going to be time consuming for Piering, filling up his evenings for the next two months.

Piering filmed a promotional video for the show with Rothstein in December in Leslie Swigum’s AP Bio classroom.

The performance run itself is also much longer than Wayzata’s longest running show of two weekends. Piering will perform in a total of 18 shows.

“We’ll be practicing at a studio outside the Guthrie until the week of the first show, when we’ll move into the Dowling Studio,” said Piering.

Piering said that the show is appropriate for high school students, but it has strong content. He also mentioned that there are some swear words in it, “but there aren’t any words you haven’t heard in the high school before.”

“What makes this show unique is that it’s all about how Max, a normal teenage boy, is trying to cope with his mother’s cancer. We all have emotional struggles, so everyone can relate to the show,” Piering said.

“This is a very impactful show and it will leave you with something that you didn’t have before you saw it,” said Piering. For more information on the show and to purchase tickets, go to either latteda.org or guthrietheater.org.