Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit visits rural Minnesota

What compelled me to drive with a relative stranger an hour and a half away to try and see a show, which may have been sold out? There was enough curiosity motivating me based on what I knew. I knew that I liked the script. I knew that a small group of professional actors was going to perform alongside local community members. I knew the performance was going to be staged in a historical village and that the audience was going to be asked to move around the space; a scene in front of a general store would take place in front of an actual general store, etc.  So, I accepted a ride arranged by a Facebook event page and headed down to Albert Lea, a city dotted with lakes in southeastern Minnesota.   

Sod House Theater’s production of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit (1956) was performed at the Freeborn County Historical Village that resembles a small town, circa 1853. Sod House Theater is a vehicle for Twin Cities based professional theater artists to make site-specific work with rural communities. This young company of seasoned actors first came together in the summer of 2012, when they performed Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in historical homes across Minnesota.

 

In fact, I think the integrated community actor model is a really interesting practice that allows for companies to not only present work in new communities but also to involve them in the making of theater.

 

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Sod House theater logo. Photo by sod house theater. 

Dürrenmatt’s The Visit opens with the small town of Güllen, a German word which in English means “to manure,” preparing for the return of billionairess Claire Zachanassian (Barbara Berlovitz), a former native, with the hopes that she would lend aid to the now financially troubled town. The town’s plan to have Alfred Ill (Bob Rosen), her former sweetheart, coax the money out of Claire is derailed after the latter promises a check of thirty million dollars to the town in exchange for Alfred’s death. Claire is on a quest for justice and revenge because decades earlier Alfred had fathered a child with Claire and denied paternity, forcing her into exile, poverty, and prostitution. The piece is not only a morality play focusing on issues of vengeance and justice, or a play that weighs the value of one man’s life versus the good of the many, but it is also an examination of consumerism. As the townspeople begin buying luxuries “on credit,” Alfred questions how his friends and family will pay for their extravagant expenditures.

In the original text, Alfred observes this transformation and each interaction serves as a note in his approaching demise. Sarah Myers adapted the script for Sod House’s production and the adaptation has retained all of the play’s early humor and its tragic ending. The middle of the play had three versions performed for different audiences. Each audience member was given a colored wristband at the box office and each group saw a different beginning to act two. My group first entered Madame Zachanassian’s parlor. The audience could wander around a barn and partake in several small performances devised by the company and not in the script. There was a ventriloquist show performed by Koby and Loby (Claire’s former false witnesses, now her blind and neutered servants), Claire read an audience member’s tarot cards, and several audience members walked a cake walk. Shortly after one lucky participant won a cupcake, we moved to the next location. The second scene was performed in an old school house and was the portion of the original script where Alfred pleads with the Mayor (Randy Reyes) to stop Claire’s machinations as the town continues to make purchases “on credit.” The third scene was in front of the general store and during the transition the actors gave us cups of lemonade that we purchased “on credit.”

Each of the three scenes I watched in my group were performed simultaneously along two other tracks, so each group saw a different show not just in the order of the scenes presented but the actual scenes themselves. My group missed out on a scene between Alfred and the preacher. While the fracturing of the play is a clever way to update a classic and provide a unique audience experience, I feel like separating the dramatic action lessened the tension in the script, as each scene serves as a nail in Alfred’s coffin and builds up to the impending doom delivered at the end of the play during the town meeting.

The meeting was one of those cleverly staged moments made possible by setting the piece in a historical village. The meeting held to decide whether Alfred lives or dies was staged in a chapel. After the ensemble ushered the audience into the tiny church and we sat in the pews, the schoolmaster (Elise Langer) gave an impassioned speech about the actual human cost of the Zachanassian endowment. The townspeople/actors voted in favor of the endowment and of killing Alfred and, due to the nature of the staging, so did the audience.

There is an interesting aspect of complicity not only in interpellating the audience as fellow townspeople, but also in terms of Sod House implicating Albert Lea and the other towns as sites of moral ambiguity.  The drive to The Visit literally transported me into a different cultural setting and the integration of the local Albert Lea actors helped create an illusion of equivalence between the fictional town of Güllen and the town of Albert Lea.

In fact, I think the integrated community actor model is a really interesting practice that allows for companies to not only present work in new communities but also to involve them in the making of theater. It’s not only a smart way to engage a community from an audience development perspective, but, I think, Dürrenmatt would approve. Like Bertolt Brecht, Dürrenmatt also explored the potential of epic theater and the way theater can involve the audience in an ideological debate rather than provide passive entertainment. 

 

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