Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Theatre de la Jeune Lune-an Appreciation

Last weekend was a very sad one for the Twin Cities. It was announced that Theatre de la Jeune Lune is closing on July 31st. Jeune Lune started in 1978, and for thirty years they have been an innovative and essential part of the Twin Cities landscape. For a longtime Jeune Lune fan like myself, it was heartbreaking to hear this news. However, I should add that it wasn't totally unexpected. Honestly, their last few shows haven't risen to the high standard Jeune Lune has set for itself. It came out last fall that the company was staggering under the weight of $1 million in debt. It's a sad end for an amazing group of artists, who won the regional Tony award in 2005.

I've seen about 45 Jeune Lune shows since 1992, when my Mother took me to see "Scapin," a commedia dell'arte play by Moliere. I was 11 then, and I've grown up watching this wonderful theater group. Jeune Lune was started by Dominique Serrand, Robert Rosen, Barbra Berlovitz, and Vincent Gracieux. In a unique structure, these four actors were co-artistic directors. Steven Epp joined the company in the mid-80's, and became the fifth artistic director. This core group of five actors are some of the most talented I've ever seen. They all brought something a little different to the mix, and they could all move from physical comedy to heartbreaking drama at the drop of a hat.

But a Jeune Lune production meant more than just great acting. It meant a totally different theater experience, from the building itself to the beautifully detailed costumes. In 1992, they moved into the old Allied Van Lines building in the Warehouse District of downtown Minneapolis. In it, they created a unique and versatile performance space. The stage and seats could be in any number of different arrangements, and they were hardly ever in the same place twice. The space allowed actors to appear at different heights, by climbing ladders to different levels of the warehouse. It's difficult to describe, but it is such a dramatic performance space, and the stage almost becomes a character in and of itself. The company almost always created fresh interpretations of their source material. When a play was based on a novel, it was always adapted by the company. Even when they were performing a play by, say, Moliere, they would search for the translation that best suited their idea of the material. And even then, they still might change it further. But their changing and adapting never took the material away from the author's original intent, they just shed more light on the brilliance originally within the material.

Some of my favorite memories from the years at Jeune Lune are:

their production of Zola's novel "Germinal," with a powerful lead performance from Steven Epp.

"The Hunchback of Notre-Dame," with Dominique as Quasimodo and Vincent as Dom Frollo.

The glorious lunacy of "Yang Zen Froggs," which showcased Jeune Lune's physical comedy at it's best.

"Honeymoon China," more general craziness, with Dominique as "Umlaut." My Mom and I still quote Dominique's line, "Oh-oh, another day, another dust bunny."

"The Pursuit of Happiness: Cinemamerica and Lifeliberty," written by the company, an epic and fascinating look at life in America, this is one of the best plays I've ever seen, anywhere. Of all the Jeune Lune plays I've seen, this one might be my favorite.

"The Dreams, Delusions, and Nightmares of Queen Elizabeth II," was one of Barbra Berlovitz's greatest performances, which is really saying something, as she's great in everything I've ever seen her in.

"Red Harvest," an adaptation of the crime novel by Dashiell Hammett, this featured my favorite Robert Rosen performance. This was the moment that for me, he transformed from a funny guy into a leading man.

"Twelfth Night," even better than the Guthrie's own production, which was a couple of years after this, I believe. Great acting by Joel Spence and Sarah Agnew as the leads.

"Tartuffe," Jeune Lune has done this several times over the years, and Steven Epp's masterful performance in the lead role was breathtaking. A brilliant study of hypocrisy and evil masquerading as piousness. Vincent was especially good as Aragon, the head of the household who falls under Tartuffe's spell.

"Cyrano," a heartbreakingly beautiful version of this tale. I will always remember the moment where Roxanne, played by Sarah Agnew, finally realizes after all these years that it was Cyrano, played by Dominique, who truly loved her. You could have heard a pin drop in the theater.

There are still so many more, like "The Magic Flute," as Jeune Lune moved into it's "opera period," highlighted by the beautiful appearances and singing voices of Bradley Greenwald, and the Baldwin sisters, Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Christina Baldwin.

"Carmen" was probably my favorite opera. It was done simply, with a piano providing the only accompaniment for those gorgeous voices. Bradley Greenwald as the doomed Don Jose, Christina Baldwin as the title temptress, and Jennifer Baldwin Peden as Michela.

And even at the end of this list, there are more productions I could mention, more brilliant, complex portrayals of humans at their best and worst. Through the years, Jeune Lune brought the Twin Cities brilliant, challenging theater. Even as a long-time fan, I can't say that I understood everything in every play, that I could tell you what it all meant. I'm just glad I was there to see the magic happen. Dominique, Vincent, Steven, Barbra, and Robert, and all the wonderful actors and artists you worked with over the years, thank you so much for letting us be a part of your artistic journey. Thank you for all you've given us.


Uncle E said...

Sounds like a very special place. At least it sounds as if you'll have some vivid memories to keep the theatre alive.
Very heartfelt and well written post. I enjoyed it very much.

Mark said...

Thanks a lot Uncle E, Jeune Lune was a very special group, and I'll definitely have great memories of so many shows.