Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Kilbourne, who had been working on the play before he died, originally designed it as one-man show, integrating his struggle with cancer with salient moments of his life, onstage and off. When he became too ill to write, he extracted a promise from his wife, Marysue Moses, to finish and produce it. Moses shares the writing credit with Kilbourne, and it seems clear that she did considerable revisions. For one things, she expanded the cast from one to three actors. In addition to Gary Geiken, who depicted Kilbourne with modesty and subtle dignity, the play featured Jim Lichtscheidl and Laura Esping, each of whom nimbly portrayed at least half-a-dozen characters based on figures drawn from in Kilbourne's colorful life. Quick-switch shape-shifting is always fun to watch, and Lichtscheidl and Esping's versatility was remarkable. All three performances impressed me as compassionate.
As the play begins, Kilbourne has reached the apex of his career: he had "finally made it to the Guthrie." Kilbourne is rehearsing on "the big stage" for Penumbra Theater's production of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom when he finds himself inexplicably slurring his words. Admitted to the hospital, he is diagnosed with a brain tumor and stage 4 metastatic melanoma. "What is stage 5?," he asks, and Dr. C, the first of several emotionally clueless doctors, remains silent.
Moses and Kilbourne capture the sense of surrealism that cancer patients often report feeling, and she doesn't spare us the terribly gory side-effects of chemotherapy or the indignities to which patients undergoing treatment are often subjected. However, she overlays these with dark farce.
In its use of irony and mordant humor to depict the debasement sand alienation that cancer patients undergo, the play bears resemblance to Julia Sweeney's 1996 one woman show God Said "Ha" in which she documents her own battle with cancer. At other times, Moses and Kilbourne exploit farce to foreground the fundamental absurdity of cancer, in all its harrowing randomness, reminding me at times of the graphic novel "Our Cancer Year" by Joyce Brabner and Harvey Pekar. Like the novel, Revolving Stage is also a great love story. Esping was funny and endearing as Marysue, and she and Geiken played beautifully with one another. The scenes depicting their later-in-life reunion (they briefly dated in high school) and marriage are joyful and rich with poignancy. Joel Sass was unsparing in portraying the relentless brutality of the disease; watching Geiken as Kilbourne fall to the floor and curl up in spasms of incredible pain was searing and powerful.
One of the plays' strengths is its interspersings of the surreal and the actual, of dark and light moods, and of happy and achingly sad memories. As Kilbourne struggles to make sense of his life, he revisits the world of his childhood and all of the worlds he has inhabited since. He holds discussions with family members long deceased, uncovering mysteries and eliciting answers to questions long buried. He also revisits the worlds of the plays he performed in, sometimes dialoguing with their characters. As an actor, Kilbourne was a craftsman and consummate professional as well as an extraordinary talent. Throughout, the play emphasizes Kilbourne's passionate devotion to the theater. His dedication to his chosen profession was such that even after he was diagnosed and underwent surgery, he insisted on touring with Penumbra as an understudy. He raised himself from his hospital bed to performof all thingsthe Ghost of Hamlet's Father in the Jungle Theater's 2012 production. Lichtscheidl was eerily spot-on in his impression of a certain former Twin Cities luminary who directed Kilbourne in the show, and who insisted, when Kilbourne showed difficulty with memorization, that Kilbourne record and lip sync the role. He made it through three performances.
We think of tenacity as being heroic and one cannot help but feel awed by Kilbourne's almost Herculean perseverance. At the same time, I found myself intrigued and even a little disturbed by a dream sequence in act two, in which Kilbourne is visited by Moliere (or is it Argan, the titular Imaginary Invalid?). Played with sinister wit by Lichtsheidl, the visitor offers Kilbourne several varieties of Faust-like bargains, the first of which is five years of unremitting success in the theater in exchange for 13 years of excruciating painful cancer. Kilbourne responds that he wants to hear more details about the five years, after which the visitor raises the stakes. Now he offers Kilbourne 25 years of healthy, cancer-free living in exchange for never having been an actor. Kilbourne doesn't take a moment before turning down the offer outright. It is unthinkable: he cannot not be an actor.
The sentiment isn't altogether unique. Centuries of artists, in any number of media, have been known to swear that they cannot live without their art. Actors in particular have a repertory of hyperbolic hypotheticals attesting to their dedication: I would die to get cast as Hamlet. I would give my right arm to play Lady Bracknell. And yet, I could not help but wonder, what would drive someone with stage 4 cancer to turn down the chance to have 25 cancer-free yearsindeed, even onein exchange for what is, after all, just a profession?
Perhaps it is that theater artists are uniquely acclimated to the experience of ephemerality. They learnas they mustto let go of the worlds they have inhabited, not just at the end of the run, but every night. A veteran actor like Kilbourne must have had to say goodbye to many worlds in his life. And to resign oneself to only being part of one worldwell, that would be have been hard.
About halfway through the show, I realized that I had missed Phil Kilbourne's last performance as King Hamlet's Ghost by one day. I wish I could have seen him play the part. I have no doubt that others well remember it.
Revolving Stage, by Marysue Moses and Phil Kilbourne, directed by Joel Sass, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis. A work-in-progress offering of Illusion's Fresh Ink series, the play was given staged readings from July 14th-17th, 2016. For more information, visit illusiontheater.org or contact the theatre at 612-339-4944.
Written by Marysue Moses and Phil Kilbourne