Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Liberty Falls, 54321
The Moving Company
Review by Kit Bix | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of How to Have Fun in a Civil War and Silent Sky


Jennifer Baldwin-Peden, Steve Epp,
and Christina Baldwin

Photo by Dominique Serrand
The first thing to say is that Jennifer Baldwin Peden is 2017's Funniest Person in the Twin Cities. True, it's only the second week of January, but in The Moving Company's remount/revision of its 2015 production of Liberty Falls, 54321, Baldwin Peden sets the bar awfully high. She plays Carmel, the town's timid, dowdy volunteer junkie, with a Buster Keaton-esque deadpan that slays. Carmel mostly sits quietly as others dominate conversation, but when she does speak up it's almost always to say something weird. Baldwin Peden's nervous interjections are plenty amusing, but she is at her most hilarious when she performs extended solo comedy routines using simple props. Mine wasn't the only snort I heard in the audience as Baldwin Peden flapped through the pages of a tiny notebook for three minutes or slowly, slowly "prepped" a dozen metal folding chairs. The woman's a riot.

The second thing to say is that Baldwin Peden's talent, like that of the rest of the stellar cast of Liberty Falls, is wasted on a play that tries to be politically relevant but plays it so safe that in some ways it winds up reaffirming the status quo rather than challenging it. This is a shame, because a) these performers are among the best comic actors in the Twin Cities, and b) The Moving Company almost always produces intelligent, visionary and compelling work. For sheer creativity and brilliant use of classical comedy traditions, there simply is no one better. Unfortunately, this play falls short of the company's usually high standards.

Liberty Falls ("pop. 958, right off Highway 47, and just up Constitution Creek") is a small town in rural Wisconsin (54321 is not a real zip code—but if it were, it would be, maybe, 30 miles outside Green Bay). The play takes place shortly after the November election (or close enough to the day that one character finds a box of uncounted ballots still in the dumpster). Three citizen volunteers gather in the high school's gym to plan and prepare a community celebration of the 107th birthday of Liberty Rose Johnson, who is funding the occasion herself. Joining dowdy Carmel is Francine (Christina Baldwin), a lusty Zumba mom of seven, who shows up in a clingy animal print shirt, a fur vest, and gym pants, with her hair in curlers (do people still walk around in curlers?). As goofy, hip-jutting Tamara, Nathan Keepers is Stuart Smiley in drag ("Positivity, positivity, positivity!"). The two chat it up like "Real Housewives," sharing too much information as Carmel sits and stares. When the subject of the election comes up, Tamara describes how she got to the polling site early to lay out decorations but got so tired she went home to take a nap. She woke up to find that she slept through Election Day, but "Oh well, there's always next year!" Soon a silent "beard-and-flannels" hipster-Sconnie-type DJ (Gabriel Murphy, great) shows up and Francine does everything in her power to seduce him, but to no avail. Baldwin as Francine is a gas, but the funniest part of the play occurs when the three women get busy setting up and decorating the gym.

Nathan Keepers' mastery of slapstick is on full display as he trips over wires and gets stuck in a chair, and tries to get a count of the bleacher seats. Keepers moves with such precision and is such a delight to watch that you wish he'd go on and on. If only the whole play were like this—a collection of circus bits and sight gags and vaudeville routines—the show would be terrific.

But it wants to be more. Specifically, it wants to be political satire in the "trajectory from commedia to the Marx Brothers to 'All in the Family,' 'South Park' and "Portlandia'"—plus Molière. At least that's what it says in the fictional "Welcome Statement" written by "the [fictional] citizens of Liberty Falls," which appears in the program. The statement goes on: "You've got to admit, there's a lot of ugliness out there right now. So we ask ourselves, What would Molière do? Well, he'd look it right in its wrong, ugly face. And make some fun out of it. Have a good old laugh at it. Yes, sometimes you just have to laugh at it all."

But the ugliness we look at is largely Liberty Rose's (Stephen Epp). When the birthday girl arrives in pearls and a wheelchair facilitated by her woebegone granddaughter, Serendipity (Heidi Bakke), she seems for all the world like the proverbial sweet little old lady ("Bless her heart!"). As soon as she opens her mouth, however, we find a xenophobic, Nazi-loving, White Supremacist, immigrant-hating bigot, who once gave advice to "Joe Joe" McCarthy, more recently tried to arrange a citizen arrest of a migrant worker nursing her baby, and presently thrills in expectation that Trump is going to usher in a Fourth Reich. (After the third time, the "Heil Hitler" arm salute joke got awfully tired.)

"She's pretty Trumpy," Serendipity notes balefully. The plot thickens as the three planners put their heads together to try to figure out how to prevent Liberty Rose from reading the Nazi rally "peach" (speech) that she has prepared for the occasion. What to do? It would spoil the rest to tell, though I'll note that the highlights of the balance are the arias performed by tenor Don Wooten, whose gorgeous voice is the musical equivalent of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia.

To return to the question, "What would Molière do?," I don't think it would be this. Yes, I get it that, like Molière, the production makes ample use of caricature and farce and buffoonery, but if this were Molière, the satire would be biting and the moral critique would be deeper and more wide-ranging. There's nothing in this play that startles us into recognizing disturbing truths. Where Molière's arrogant blowhards and fools and obsessives are enabled by the moral hubris and complacency of those who surround them, this play gently pokes fun at the foibles and eccentricities and pretensions of its ultimately harmless characters. Where Molière locates "ugliness" in our general human nature, Liberty Falls does something very different: it projects all the "ugliness" onto an arch villain and reassures us that the rest of the citizens are "basically good." The play divides the world into the good folks and the bad folks, racists and non-racists, with nothing in between.

Predictably, it turns out that Serendipity is in love with an African-American guy (Wooten) and everyone except for evil grandma is super-supportive. Sure, these folks might be quirky and a little slow on the uptake, but rest assured, they're "ugliness"-free. But is anyone really? When Tamara accidentally stumbles on a box-ful of uncounted ballots left in a dumpster, all but one vote is for Hillary. (Strange that, for a small town in a state in which, uncounted ballots aside, Donald Trump received 1.5 million votes.)

Perhaps the play's political jokes were funnier when the play was first produced in 2015—or, indeed, at any time before November 8, 2016. I imagine general election years, when shifting attitudes are suddenly thrown into stark relief, must be a challenge for theater companies, most of whom must plan their seasons six months to a year in advance. One of the housewives, when trying to rationalize an ugly comment she finds in one of Liberty Rose's old letters, remarks: "Those were different times." Perhaps we're in different times now, and we will laugh—and think—harder when the satire goes a little darker and digs a little deeper.

Liberty Falls, 54321 created and produced by The Moving Company is being performed, Thursday through Sunday, through February 7, 2017, at The Lab Theater, 700 N. 1st St., Minneapolis, MN 55401. For tickets and other information, call 612-333-7977, or go to https://www.thelabtheater.org/the-moving-company.

Directed by Dominique Serrand
Featuring: Jennifer Baldwin Peden, Christina Baldwin, Nathan Keepers, Heidi Bakke, Steven Epp, Dom Wooten, Gabriel Murphy
Set Design: Dominique Serrand
Costume Design: The Company
Costume Help: Sonya Berlovitz
Lighting : Marcus Dilliard
Musical Arrangement: Christina Baldwin and Jennifer Baldwin Peden
Accompaniment: Barb Brooks


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