I just left the matinee performance of 5 at the Jungle Theater and I was blown away by this new work but particularly by it’s star and writer JuCoby Johnson. In this co-production between Trademark Theater and the Jungle Theater we get the best of both theater companies. Trademark brings it’s care and nurturing of new works having commissioned this play through it’s new-works-to-production pipeline. Developing the play over several years, resulting in a workshop and reading in 2021. Now having developed the script, Jungle brings it’s theater space, artists, and budget to bare on the work and the two companies have created a significant and brilliantly executed piece of new theater for Twin Cities audiences. A script that contains both laugh out loud moments, startling surprises, and leaves you with a lot to unpack and process once the curtain call is done. Theses performances feel real and lived in, completely authentic. The production design adds to the authentic feel of the entire piece with technical departments in lock step that will wow the audience in unexpected ways. This is a treat for theatergoers in every imaginable way.
5 features five characters whose lives are interconnected. Jay and Evan are co-owners of a corner store in an area of a city that is undergoing gentrification. The two lifelong friends have inherited the store from their fathers, and attempt to run it together as they always have. But, as the world is changing around them, not only their city but the entire planet, they disagree on what will need to be done in order to save the store which hardly ever has a customer. The five are rounded out by Walter who preaches the end of times outside the store, whom they feed and respect. June Jay’s ex-girlfriend, who has left him over some nude photo texts that he received from another woman. And finally, Stacy from the realty firm that is buying up local buildings to demolish and put up condos and juice bars. Offers are made, friendships tested, secrets revealed. It’s helpful to remember what the plays Director H. Adam Harris says in his program notes “As you watch, know that this play has no villains or heroes.” Every character is grappling with their own baggage and desires, there are things in their pasts that motivate and immobilizes them. There’s a force at work outside of the five but we’re uncertain when or to what extent that force will come into play.
JuCoby Johnson along with writing the play also plays the role of Jay, I really can’t say enough good things about his performance. Right from the start as he comes out of his shop to bring Walter, played by Aaron Todd Douglas, in and feed him some breakfast, he plays to unseen people across the street, he does it with confidence and authority. His give and take, warmth and interest, and respect, shows Walter is genuine. When confronted by June about the text pictures, he finds the perfect notes to play the frustration and honesty with humor, we understand what Jay is going through and are able to laugh at his inability to extricate himself from the doghouse. He has a wonderful best friend vibe with Eric Hagen who plays Evan. They kid each other and talk as if they are saying the same things they say everyday. When the two are in conflict you can feel the betrayal and frustration from both of them. Hagen plays the role that comes across initially as the sell out, but the play gives him time to point out the ineffectiveness of refusing to even consider change. There’s a lot of topics and issues that are woven within the story that aren’t hammered home but we are relied upon as the audience to draw conclusions, to way the idealism with the practical. And when we feel like we know who is right and who is wrong, we’re allowed more information and that colors the situation differently. There are no villains or heroes, only real people with their strengths and their weaknesses. Douglas, gets some nice moments to be the wise prophet and has a gravitas, especially in a later scene with Dana Lee Thompson’s Stacy, when he remembers who she was when she was younger. Reminding us that even this man of God, has regrets and weaknesses. Thompson’s Stacy spends most of the play in no-nonsense mode, she’s there to do a job and she’s very good at it. We get one moment of some vulnerability in the scene just mentioned, where we see her let her guard down, it’s brief but impactful. That moment allows us to reevaluate her character and adds depth and humanity to the role. Isabella Dawis as June is the character that reminds everyone to be their best. She sees through others and doesn’t let them get away with anything. Dawis is able to cross examine both Jay and Evan but also connect with them.
Scenic Designer Chelsea M. Warren has created an environment that feels like it has the history and familiarity of a corner store that these characters have been mucking around in their entire lives. The front door to the store is perfect and the way in which JuCoby in particular uses that downstage space to remind drivers they can’t park there, really adds a feeling of a specific location. The set is filled with details that look like more then set dressing and the combination of the space. Props by John Novak, and Lighting Design by Bill Healey, really immerse the audience in the story. Dan Dukich as Sounds Designer along with Healey’s Lighting Design also create bizarre moments of unease and a sense that there are more things in heaven and earth… The entire production feels as though each department made their plan in talks with the others, then everything was gone over with a fine tooth comb. Giving every refrigerated case, every bag of chips, every cassette tape an extra measure of meaning and relevance. 5 is a brilliantly written, performed, designed and directed show. H. Adam Harris has fashioned a theater piece that entertains us, makes us question the characters and ourselves and even surprises us. It feels cohesive and real in a way that theater rarely does and then it still is able to add elements of the fantastic without losing it’s tone or grounding.
5 runs through April 16th at the Jungle Theater in a co production with Trademark Theater that brings out the best of both companies. This is one not to be missed! For more information about 5 and purchase your tickets please go to https://www.jungletheater.org/5-show
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