SALT LAKE CITY — It’s always fun to find a new theater and see a new kind of show, but it can also be like a box of chocolates (you never know what you’re going to get). Finding the small venue of the Wasatch Theatre Company at the Gateway Mall was easy enough. However, the evening’s offerings of story telling and a one-act play served up by the Great Bear Folk Theatre were mixed, leaving my pallet confused.
The first moment entering the theater was awkward. The outside doors opened right into the theater, a good-sized room with maybe 45 chairs set up around a couple of risers and a nice setting for intimate theater gatherings. A pre-show was underway, offered by Brigham Hansen, but by opening the door into a pre-show live performance, it felt like I was late and intruding on a piece in progress. Brigham Hansen’s original numbers reminded me of 90’s alternative rock music. He shared his songs, “Cheater in October,” and, “Highmark,” which seemed to draw from his personal experiences and connections with friends and ancestors. Although the songs were generally only three or four chord rotations, and pitchy at times, I must give him credit for putting himself out there and sharing his original work.
An evening of stories, music, and a one-act play followed the pre-show. Overall, the production felt more like a talent show than a unified production. There didn’t seem to be a cohesive vision tying together the elements of the show. One or two actors shared a song or story and then turned the time over to someone else for something unrelated. The disjointed nature of the production made for an uneven night, as some of the sections were enjoyable while others were more difficult to sit through.
I enjoyed the performance by Omar Hansen. His folk songs, “Fiddler’s Green” and “Leaving Liverpool,” invoked a reminiscence on the nature of change and the things left behind. He performed the songs with a slight accent that added to the endearing folk song nature.
After the dulcet sounds of the guitar had finished, the tone shifted immediately as Rob Burns and his amazing mustache (it was practically a character unto itself) took the stage. He retold a “true” comedic story from his childhood about how he and his friend rode their bikes up the mountain and witnessed a deer being hit by a car. Burns’s animated face and mannerisms painted a vivid picture of his ten-year-old self strapping a dead deer onto his banana-seated bicycle to take the deer home for dinner. I enjoyed listening to Burns (and his mustache) tell this funny tale. It made me ponder on how the perspective of childhood warps our memories. Despite his hilarious performance, I couldn’t help but feel like it was out of place.
Performing after Burns was the talented duo of Annie and Dan Eastmond. Singing with nice harmony and pitch, Dan played guitar while Annie played either the mandolin or the concertina. Though the performers were talented, at this point in the production I began to feel like I was at a talent show rather than a production. The songs were fun, and the Eastmonds obviously enjoy performing them together. However, they could have used more practice beforehand, as several words were forgotten and the timing of the duet was sometimes off.
Another huge shift in tone came as Cassie Ashton performed a storytelling monologue called, “Wu Mei: The Power Within.” The performance was a tale of a kung fu nun who helps to save another young girl by teaching her martial arts and helping her realize she has the power to choose her own destiny. Ashton did a good job in changing character voices and sight lines as the story progressed, but her performance would have benefited from slowing down her speech and enunciating more.
Omar Hansen then returned to the stage with Lori Hansen to perform Omar Hansen’s new 10-minute play, A January Thaw. Although confusing overall, this new play had moments of delightful banter between an old couple trapped together in Dante’s frozen hell. Throughout the play, I puzzled over who these old people were and where the play was set. They could have been senile people in a care facility or ancient Gods who had been bickering with each other for eons as the world moved far beyond them. It just wasn’t clear. Eventually, a third character, Dante played by Rob Burns, entered. Dante leaves the couple in a loop to forever continue torturing each other with no hope of warmth or reprieve.
This play would benefit from continued work-shopping to focus the theme and the characters’ back stories before they arrived in a hellish frozen landscape. Unless the author was solely trying to convey the futility of eternal relationships, and the misery inflicted thereby, some refining would help to quickly set up the story. Because of the 10-minute play format, telling a complex backstory is difficult, but a faster story set up would clarify the concept behind the hilarious and slightly uncomfortable banter between the couple.
Finishing the evening was a performance of, “Will You Go to Flanders,” a Scottish folk song performed by Omar and Lori Hansen followed by the tale, “The Selkie.” A more polished storytelling by Lori Hansen was enhanced by the accompaniment of the soft guitar played by Omar Hansen, though the guitar could have been more consistent in reflecting the mood of the words being spoken. Overall, I enjoyed the pairing of these two elements of the show.
Though the Great Bear Folk Theatre offered some fine morsels, taken altogether, the evening felt fragmented. The night would have benefited from a common theme to keep it from feeling like an impromptu night around the campfire. There may have been a January thaw, but it frosted over, and thawed, and frosted over again, leaving the performance lukewarm.