BY LIZ BYRON It is a frustrating thing when the first thing I have to say about a play has nothing to do with the script, the performance, or even the set. After seeing Mrs Charles, a world premiere production by Freshwater Theatre, the first thing that I blurted out to my partner as we exited the theatre was, “I’m so glad to be out of there!” For while the play had many merits, a comfortable viewing experience was not one of them. At three hours long with only a ten-minute intermission (and don’t believe the bartender who says the second half is only 40 minutes — I clocked it at 63), Mrs Charles is already a bit of an endurance test, but add in the hard, wood chairs and the apparent lack of temperature control (I was sweating more than I’d like to admit to) at Nimbus Theatre and it feels like a grueling marathon.
Certainly this is not all I can say about the play, but the fact that it’s the first thing I think of is problematic. The environment doesn’t have to be perfect, but it shouldn’t be a distraction. So, if you can’t stay seated for three hours, or can’t handle uncushioned seats, this is not the show for you.
Now, on to the actual play. Mrs Charles, written by Ruth Virkus and directed by Jimmy LeDuc is a new, locally written piece that is advertised as an “historical LGBT romance”. In fact, while the story itself is pure fiction, it was inspired by a very real painting at the Minneapolis Institute for the Arts, which shows a very masculine-looking woman, which led to the speculation: could it have been a man? How could that have come to be? In the late 19th century, Walter (Nathan Tylutki) and Charlie (Neil Schneider) are faced with a dilemma: they are in love, but cannot allow their relationship to be publicly known. When Walter is offered a lucrative job transfer from Philadelphia to Minneapolis, their dilemma comes to a head — for how can Charlie pick up and go with Walter without blowing their cover? In an act of desperation, Charlie decides to disguise himself as Charlotte, and introduce himself in Minneapolis as Walter’s wife. The implications of this charade turn out to be more profound and longer-lasting than either Charlie or Walter had guessed, changing their relationship forever.
Virkus’ script is rich with details of Minneapolis’ history, with fleshed-out characters even beyond the two leads, and with big questions, both philosophical and political. Particularly interesting was the way in which women’s rights and same-sex rights seemed at-odds with each other — a topic still relevant in 2014. It seems that two groups that share similar struggles for recognition and liberty should be unified in their fight, but, as Mrs Charles shows, it often plays out more like a zero-sum game, where one group’s victory necessarily means the other’s loss.
Another fascinating question that came up was that of identity. When Charlie becomes Charlotte, is he still Charlie, or is he someone new?
Can he be both simultaneously? Would he ever have cared about women’s suffrage if he had never put on a dress? Early on, contemplating the possibility of living as a woman, Charlie debates whether he really ought to quit his job (presumably forever) for the sake of his love; does he want the #1 priority in his life to be his partner, before even himself? What is an acceptable level of sacrifice, and how do you ever know if it’s worth it?
If anything, there is too much in this play, and it’s easy to get distracted by supporting characters or the myriad of historical details. While Margery (Katie Starks), Charlie’s cousin and the couple’s confidante, is delightful in her exuberant activism, she is never quite as captivating as the leads are. Similarly, the story young Garnet (Mikaela Kurpierz) is compelling, but comes in a little too late to ever truly draw you into her life (can’t say more; spoilers!); by that point in the story, all you really care about is what will happen to the ageing Charlie and Walter.
Ultimately, Mrs Charles is a touching piece that is well-performed right across the board. Neil Schneider and Nathan Tylutki have such natural chemistry on stage that I dare anyone to see this play and not be rooting for them. Seriously, they play the happy, madly-in-love couple so well and so sweetly that I can’t imagine how anyone could watch them and still argue that there is anything “unnatural” or “wrong” about two men in love with each other. Katie Starks as Margery is entertaining most of the time, and incredibly sympathetic the rest of the time. (Side note: after seeing Ms Starks in Stop Kiss and Naked I: Insides Out, I proclaim her to be my newest favourite local actor) Ariel Leaf‘s outspoken Dr Ripley has a big presence that would be necessary for a doctor/women’s rights activist of that time. Really, I can’t find a cast member to criticize; even the most minor of minor characters did well, and they all looked wonderful waltzing across Theresa Aker‘s expansive set, in wonderfully-done period costumes, designed by Barb Portinga.
If this play were a good half-hour shorter (which it could easily have been, with some trimming of minor characters’ plot intrigues; was anyone really ever that curious about Margery’s religious affiliations?), and/or if Nimbus Theatre could invest in some cushioned seats (or cushions for existing seats), I would recommend this without reservation. As it is, I recommend it as a play, if you can ignore or are immune to the physical discomforts.
Mrs Charles by Ruth Virkus, presented by Freshwater Theatre, runs May 3-18, 2014 at Nimbus Theatre, 1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets $15 or #13 with Fringe button (ages 16+ recommended) at www.freshwatertheatre.com or 612-816-8479.