Ring of the hearts

April 17, 2005.By Graydon Royce, Star Tribune.

Director Peter Rothstein, a stickler for detail, lately has grown to appreciate the zest of spontaneity. Rothstein had called his cast together onto the Loring Playhouse stage before a recent rehearsal for “King of Hearts,” which Theatre Latté Da and Interact Theatre open Saturday night. Before they could form a meditative circle, Interact performer David Bauman grabbed Rothstein in a hug and would not let go.

“You’re my guy,” Rothstein said to Bauman, who finally released his clinch long enough for the director to say a few words to get the actors focused on the work ahead.

The tender moment was not terribly unusual in a theater world where artists express themselves easily with one another. It did, though, illustrate the connection and joy that have become a part of the process for this staging of a story about an American soldier who enters a French village at the end of World War I and finds the inmates of an insane asylum wandering the streets.

The co-production started percolating several years ago after Rothstein watched “Madame Josette’s Nothing Scared Cabaret,” and Interact show that featured the performers with disabilities who make up the troupe. That show was remarkable for the unguarded openness and personality of the actors and singers. Tod Petersen, a Rothstein friend and collaborator, was Interact music director at the time and had helped create the cabaret. Rothstein was smitten.

“This,” he said the other day, “is what theater is supposed to be and rarely is.”

Straightforward and blunt in a presentation, the show was nonetheless complicated and layered for an audience. To wit: Why was it so affecting? Was it because of virtuosity or a sense of feeling sorry, or what?

“It forced you to confront your own voyeurism,” Rothstein said.

Petersen hit another point: “It made you confront your own brokenness, your inner misfit.”

Whatever, the energy and spirit that Rothstein saw that night got him interested in collaborating with Interact. With that notion tucked in his head, he came upon a “King of Hearts” CD on a trip to New York and liked what he heard. He next watched the 1966 French cult movie on which the stage show is based. He and Petersen then approached Interact’s executive director, Gregory Stavrou, who quickly consented to a collaboration.

Checkered past Playwright Steve Tesich teamed with lyricist Jacob Brackman and composer Peter Link in 1977 to adapt the musical from the film. It showed enough promise to garner an invite to Broadway the following year. The producers, however, sacked Tesich and asked veteran Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) to write a new book. The show closed after 48 performances. When the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., revived the show in 2002, it used Teisch’s original book. That is the version Rothstein is using in this production.

Billed as an antiwar treatise, “King of Hearts” challenges logic and sanity within the context of war. “Much of the humor of the piece comes from the illogic of it,” Rothstein said. “The inmates don’t understand violence.”

This production sets up an interesting juxtaposition of styles. Part of Rothstein’s strength as a director derives from his attention to detail. Interact is about the spontaneity, honest, ragged and raw. The director’s challenge is to capture glimpses of that genius – transparent activity – and somehow toss a gentle lasso around them.

“They are so 100 percent honest that any attempt at putting style on their action makes it look fake,” he said. “It’s had to find its own style, much more naturalistic.”

Later, speaking on the same subject, he marveled at moments in rehearsal when an actor would “create something that my brain would never come up with.”

It’s not a secret that actors with disabilities can struggle with rote and prescribed material. The Interact troupe has been working with music director Denise Prosek since November, pounding away at the score with repetition and patience.

“Then when they get it, like four-part harmony in Latin, it’s such a joy to see them do that,” Prosek said. “It’s not been easy on them. We’ve demanded a lot.”

These are not innocents. Like all performers, they are driven by ego, a nose for the spotlight and a determination to get it right. Karen Thorund, for instance, is a reigning diva at Interact. In this production, she needs to fit in with the ensemble. Rothstein laughed as he recalled how Thorud encouraged herself and her stage-mates during one rehearsal to get it right, admonishing, “People are paying 15, 25 bucks to see this!”

“King of Hearts” is Interact’s third foray into collaboration with another Twin Cities theater troupe. Most recently, in 2002, Mixed Blood employed a group for its production of “The Boys Next Door,” a play that featured residents of a group home for folks with disabilities. This show differs because Rothstein is mixing up the cast. For example, Eric Wheeler, Matt Dahlstrom and Bauman – all of whom have Down syndrome – play German soldiers with a flair taken from the Keystone Kops.

“I’ve always through the Downs are natural Zen Buddhists,” Petersen said.

As difficult as it is to put up a book musical, several actors hanging out before a recent rehearsal said it will be tougher when the lights go down on the final performance.

“I love these people,” said Michael Paul. “I’m going to be a wreck on closing night.”