It is always a treat to visit small theaters, especially ones that have taken up residence in old buildings that once served a very different purpose. Inevitably, the time-worn architecture imparts a unique character upon the space that’s generally not found among newer, more purpose-built theaters. Too, since space is at a premium, the box office, entryway, coat room and other externalia are, of necessity, cheek by jowl with the seating and stage.
In Minneapolis, Open Eye Figure Theatre makes creative use of this compressed space to immediately begin drawing audiences into the world of its current show. Pictures of the fictional town of Beldenville, Maine, and a large “Sugar Troll” (mascot of the Beldenville Syrup company) provide a background for the setting. The historical buildings’ own repurposing echoes on the stage, where the troll has converted the disused train tracks under the highway bridge into his own lair. By the time we seat ourselves under the black-painted ceiling and the lights dim away, we have already entered the world of The Beldenville Troll.
Skillfully directed by Joel Sass, The Beldenville Troll is a fascinating, fantastical theatrical work that tells several stories at once, cleverly embodying these multiple layers in its staging methods. Featuring virtually no onstage dialogue, the play uses voice-overs, shadow puppetry, real puppetry, intricate staging, pitch-perfect sound design, and of course the tremendous physical talents of the actors. Chief among this last is Neal Skoy, who plays the Troll with absorbing interest. For much of the play, Skoy is alone on the stage, yet there is never a moment that feels stretched or forced. From the moment he enters the stage on his “motorcycle,” Skoy depicts the story as intelligibly as if he were narrating it. Indeed, the very lack of words combined with Skoy’s gift for physical storytelling gives the audience a more visceral connection to the character than if we’d heard his story read aloud.
Kudos must also be given to Chloé Bell, who plays Girl with Scissors (among other roles) in her first appearance at Open Eye. Bell inhabits the character with engaging sympathy, and her screen work is also very impressive. It can be difficult to project emotion through a screen with just a shadow, but Bell’s hand work was especially evocative.
The staging is a brilliant use of such a small space. Despite—or perhaps because of—the minuscule area available, not an inch is wasted. Somehow, bridge supports, a disused train tunnel, a fishing hole, and a trap door (out of which the nightmarish “Sugar Troll” emerges) are all present, but nothing feels cramped. Townsfolk are presented as voiceovers, either on the on-set radio or layered over the shadow-puppet scenes. We hear them, sometimes, raining abuse down from the bridge above upon the troll living underneath.
The sound design by Sean Healey is brilliant and, like the Dude’s rug, really ties the whole thing together. Ominous or raucous as necessary, it complements the actors’ work perfectly at every step. Nor can I fail to mention the lighting design by Bill Healey, which elegantly brings to life the various settings: under the bridge, a bar, a high school dance. The additional shadow and physical puppetry by Kalen Rainbow Keir and Max Mainwood is top notch as well.
If I am not discussing the plot in any great depth, it is not because of the lack of it. Rather, if I might be allowed to mix my monsters a bit, the story unwinds like a string through a labyrinth, and part of the audience’s job is to wind it up to their own satisfaction. Is the troll really a troll? Is the story really about the troll at all? What part does the town itself play? The play is subtitled A New England Gothic, and for a reason. The story is at times whimsical, more often tending toward the tragic, and overall gives viewers a disturbing look at a town that can’t face itself in the mirror. On the surface, we are presented with the troll’s story, told in the play’s present day as well as through flashbacks. By the time the play is over, the troll has become the “troll,” and it is possible that the troll never existed at all save in the imagination of the also-damaged Girl with Scissors.
Some members of the audience at the sold-out first performance may have been expecting a different tone. True, the show involves puppets and shadow puppets and has a few humorous moments, but there were occasionally laughs at times when I didn’t think a laugh was called for. Not because the show was failing in any way, but because I believe some in the audience were primed for more jollity than was actually presented. The Beldenville Troll, despite the occasional whimsy, is not for kids. There’s some very adult language, and while there’s little that would overtly terrify younger viewers, the length and the more mature themes would certainly make most restive over its 75-minute run time.
Intricate, dark, fascinating, and fantastical, this work is among the best that theater can be—appealing to the eyes, the ears, and the mind. Consider it a must-see!
The Beldenville Troll is at Open Eye Figure Theatre through April 14, 2019. April 8 is an industry-night show.