Sweet trumps cynical in ‘King of Hearts’

April 25, 2005.By Christy DeSmith, Pioneer Press.

“King of Hearts” is the most enchanting show I’ve seen all year. In the artistic climate we live in—a detached one that is often disdainful of all things overtly sentimental — “King of Hearts is unabashedly precious. Lots of smooching and hugging goes on. But actors get away with it.

For this production, set on the last day of World War I in a French mental asylum, Theatre Latté Da teamed with Interact Center, a troupe of performers with physical and mental challenges, to create an alternate universe in which we can’t tell who’s crazy and who’s sane. The result is something magical, something with the power to disarm an ugly inner cynic. Before long, my head swelled with warm fuzzies, and I was choked up by the sappy songs.

The magic of “King of Hearts” lives in its contrasting images and ideas – war vs. love, sanity vs. acceptance – painted by director Peter Rothstein and company, with a special hats-off to costume designer Kathy Kohl, whose costumes paint magnificently divergent imagery.

When we first meet the “crazies,” the asylum inhabitants, they’re locked behind an iron gate. Clad in clinical white gowns, they crawl, they amble; a few wrap their fingers around the gate’s bars and stare dreamily at the outside world. It’s a pitiable but gorgeous picture.

Soon, a hapless, corn-fed American soldier named Johnny (Joel Liestman) ducks into the asylum, out of the way of some German soldiers (played by Eriq Nelson and, with great comic effect, a trio of mustachioed Interact performers who have Down syndrome: Eric Wheeler, Matt Dahlstrom and David Bauman).

“There are two things in this world that scare me: bombs and crazy people,” says Johnny who, upon realizing he’s surrounded by the latter, flees – but not without unhitching the gate and leaving crazies thinking he’s their king. In celebration, the freed inmates inject their lily-white madhouse with Technicolor. They deck out in tulle and lush velvet. They festoon their village in streamers and crepe. They sing a subdued “la-la” while the orchestra overlays bells, piano and hooky violin.

What I loved most about the production is how it honors “disabilities” rather than masks them. The performers with Down syndrome, for example, stomp and bumble per their own comic timing. A deaf performer (Billy Tomaszewski) sings a pretty song in American Sign Language.

Sure, there are imperfections: Songs go flat; performers smile a few seconds late. But in this world, where “you stack the deck in your favor – you make up your own logic,” says a pretty, idealistic inmate played by ballerina-esque Stacey Lindell. The booboos are forgivable. In fact, they’re only more endearing. It’s too generous and loving a place to feel anything but wonder and glee.


What: “King of Hearts,” directed by Peter Rothstein for Theatre Latté Da and Interact Center

When: Through May 22

Where: Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.

Tickets: $15-$25; 612-343-3390; www.latteda.org