The Old Log Theatre Opens it’s 80th Year With a Winner, The Dixie Swim Club

Photo Old Log Theatre

The old Log Theatre is the oldest professional theatre in Minnesota, staging it’s first show in 1940. 80 years later it is showing us why. 2020 saw it complete it’s dead brilliant run of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder which opened in October 2019. Now with The Dixie Swim Club they demonstrate once again that they know what their audiences want and how to give it to them. The Dixie Swim Club is a laugh out loud comedy that find humor in character, and what characters they are. A talented cast of five local actresses that give such strong and endearing performances by the time the play ends, you feel like you have spent the evening as part of this close circle of friends rather than just as an observer. Yes, this is another show you can safely take Grandma too, and you know what? That’s great!

The Dixie Swim Club written by the team of Jessie Jone, Nicolas Hope, and Jamie Wooten is not an incredibly original play. It draws comparisons to Steel Magnolias among others. It follows five women who became friends when they were on their college swim team together. The play shows us them on four of their yearly Girls Weekend at a cabin on the beach in August. The first Girls Weekend takes place 22 years after graduation and by the last weekend, 33 years have passed in all. The script does a wonderful job of giving us details about their personalities that we can follow through each time jump. Sheree played by Shana Eisenberg is the planner and health conscious one. Jen Maren plays Dinah, the career focused lawyer who hasn’t made time for a personal life. Sara Marsh is Lexie the self absorbed serial divorcee. Bonni Allen is Jeri who starts the play as a nun. And finally, Melinda Kordich plays Vernadette, bad luck follows her around like an annoying little sister that cannot be shaken off or ditched. They are all terrific, but Vernadette and particularly Kordich’s performance was my favorite. The first time we see her in each time period she has something wrong that we can see, a sling on her arm, crutches…. The story about the cause and what is happening in her life are some of the best comedic touches. But what was really impressive is the way she didn’t wallow in her bad luck. She has such an “oh well, what can you do?” attitude about some of the worst luck I’ve ever heard of that you can’t help but admire her character. She faces ridiculous adversity with self deprecating humor, it’s a much better choice than the sad sack route. It also leads to one of my favorite lines from the play when after telling them what has happened to her this year, one of the others says “your life is just one long country song isn’t it?” to which she replies, “and the hits just keep on coming.”

The Director Eric Morris, who also directed A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, does another fantastic job here. He has steered the performers towards distinct and authentic characterizations, allowing us to feel for them but also finding the humor. That balance can be tricky, and Morris shows he know how to walk that tightrope with confidence. There is an interesting choice in the changes between scenes. We have some of the performers helping to set the scene for the next time period but also ¬†Assistant Stage Manager, Annie Miners coming through and helping make the adjustments. It’s different because she is in full view of the audience and seems to be doing a little performance. For example, the first switch she comes out while Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is playing, and she is doing a little bit of a dance while she makes the changes. This actual reminded me of a similar technique in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Steel Magnolias last fall. It threw me at the Guthrie, but this time around I think Morris made it work. First of all there is a fair amount of little things that need to be changed, glasses and other props removed from the scene. You either have to darken the stage or drop a curtain for far too long, or you work it into the show. In this case I took it to be the caretaker who comes in after this yearly reunion putting everything right. The final set change brings an unexpected sense of loss to the play, changing the tone slightly so that when we jump ahead 23 years we sense there was a loss. Lastly I want to point out the scenic and lighting design of Erik Paulson. The set is perfectly realized, it is the livingroom of the cabin they rent every year, it’s sort of standard stuff, but well executed. The neat touch is in the distance outside the cabin we see the ocean and a night sky. The trees outside the window have the palms moving in the breeze. The sunset also changes beautifully, as does the sky itself when a storm is approaching.

Plays through May 29th at the Old Log Theatre for more information and to purchase tickets click on http://oldlog.com/ .

A Gentleman’s Guide To Love & Murder at the Old Log Theatre

David Beukema as the entire D’Ysquith Family. (photo Old Log Theatre)

This was not my first visit to The Old Log Theatre, I have been going there annually for close to 20 years. It was however my first non-kid-centric production and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The yearly Christmas shows that I had been attending with some combination of children or grandchild were always fun affairs if a little underwhelming. Though truth be told, several of the productions in the last few years seemed to have raised the bar a bit. Well, I was not disappointed in the quality of the production or the cast. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder as a show is a superior musical comedy, Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman and Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak, the show won 4 Tony awards in 2014 including Best Musical and Best Book. Based on the 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a criminal by Roy Horniman. This novel was also the basis for the 1949 British Film from the Ealing Studios Kind Hearts and Coronets, which I am very fond of. Clearly taking a queue from that film in which Alec Guinness played nine separate members of an upper class family, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder also casts one actor, David Beukema, in just as many roles.

The musical begins with a warning to the audience that it is about murder and suggests that if you are of a weaker constitution you might want to leave before it starts. We then meet Monty Navarro who is writing his memoirs in prison while he awaits the ruling in his murder trial. The rest is basically a flashback. Beginning when Monty, after returning from the funeral of his mother is informed by an old friend of hers that he is actually a member of the wealthy D’Ysquith family. In fact, it turns out he is Ninth in line to be the Earl of Highhurst. His mother was disinherited and forever rejected by the family for eloping with his father whom she loved despite being beneath her in the families eyes. After his father died when he was seven, his mother and he scraped by as best they could. Letters he finds confirms that she tried repeatedly to reach out to her family for help, all of which were returned without assistance. When his attempts to reach out to his newly discovered family are rebuked, and faced with the realization that the woman he loves, Sibella will never marry him as he is not rich or have any real prospects, he hits upon the idea of shortening the line of succession, by killing off the members ahead of him. The rest of the show concerns itself with the murders of the eight family members ahead of him in line for the Earldom. Adding yet another layer is his engagement to Phoebe, the Widow of one of his earlier victims, which occurs with Sibella, now his married mistress in the other room.

Max Wojtanowicz who plays Monty is well cast. The role requires a performer that can win over the audience despite committing what, when you think about it, are some truly horrible acts. He has a good singing voice and the perfect body language to convey the almost straight man reactions to the D’Ysquith family. Speaking of the D’Ysquith family, David Beukema absolutely nails each of his nine roles. Assisted by Costumes, he finds ways to make each member of the family unique and amusing in their own ways. This is a tour-de-force of comic acting, each character distinct. One’s mind boggles at the speed of costume changes that must be occurring back stage. One of my favorite songs in the show was a duet between Wojtanowicz and Beukema “Better With a Man” It perfectly blends the wit and humor of the lyrics with the comic blocking of the action, keying into the performers reactions to each other. Both actresses Emily Scinto (Sibella) and Elizabeth Hawkinson (Phoebe) are lovely in their parts with beautiful singing voices. They share a scene with Wojtanowicz involving a set of doors and the song “I’ve Decided to Marry You” that involves split second timing on the part of all three performers which is another highlight of the show. One other performer that really caught my attention was Suzie Juul in her role of Lady Eugenia, the interaction between that character and Beukema as her husband Lord Adalbert are fantastic in their caustic mutual loathing.

The show as directed by Eric Morris is fast paced with not a swing wasted as we chop our way through the D’Ysquith family tree. The set is changed by the drawing of curtains and the rolling on and off of various pieces. All of the frequent transitions are handled smoothly, moving between scenes fluidly and without drawing attention to them. We are never left at a loss for where a scene is taking place or have the feeling there is more on stage than there needs to be. It’s a very clean and effective design. There were some interesting uses of fabric and lighting to convey scenes that could have been challenging. When a character falls to his death, his fall and landing are suggesting mainly through lighting. When a couple falls through the ice on a lake we see them struggling underwater silhouetted behind a sheet. Clever ways in which to capture these visual moments. There are also some very clever costume and prop designs, a rifle with a ever elongating barrel, a bee keepers hat, and the head of a Major are just a few examples of the inventive work being done in those departments.

This is a show full humor, filled with witty and catchy songs. The Old Log has mounted an impressive production. Including a masterclass in comic acting from David Beukema in nine separate roles and Max Wojtanowicz as the perfect sympathetic murderer. Perfectly complimenting each other Beukema creating the characters and Wojtanowicz reacting to them. You are not going to beat this for entertainment, it’s about some dark themes but it’s appropriate for teens and Grandma alike. Tickets can be purchased at the Old Log’s website http://oldlog.com/ The show runs through February 15 2020. Plenty of time to take it in, but don’t let this one slip your mind. Go early in it’s run, you may just want to take it in again before it closes.

Emily Scinto, Max Wojtanowicz and Elizabeth Hawkinson (Photo Old Log Theatre)
David Beukema (Photo Old Log Theatre)
Emily Scinto and Max Wojtanowicz (Photo Old Log Theatre)