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.