I’ve been to the Guthrie many times before, but only to its larger productions.  Getting singled out by the Groucho Marx impersonator in The Cocoanuts will always remain the high point of my life, even if I have children one day.  I adored To Kill a Mockingbird and envied how much more talented the little kids in it were at acting than I could ever be.  I was never clear on who the real witch was in The Crucible, though.Last April I went to see The American Clock at Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio.  I hadn’t heard of Dowling Studio, and I had reservations about seeing a production performed by University of Minnesota students.  It brought to mind the plays the drama club used to put on back in high school, incomprehensible things which only marginally beat out the math classes they took the place of in terms of entertainment value.

For $9, however, I’m always a sport.  I’ve eaten more expensive sandwiches.  Imagine my pleasant surprise when I found out that the students’ production of The American Clock was a masterpiece!  In a collection of vignettes centered around Americans hit by The Great Depression, they injected contemporary themes and live music into the play to positively electrify it.  Folksy renditions of pop songs, both touching and truly funny moments, and spirited performances captivated me for two hours, complete with an intermission to go and look down on Saint Anthony Falls through the high-up observation deck’s lemon tinted windows.

One of the actors stood out to me in particular.  Josh Zwick, with his shock of bright red hair and guitar virtuosity, very memorably portrayed Lee Baum, the son of a well-to-do Jewish family brought to near ruin by the financial crisis.  I asked Josh a few things after the performance, particularly about whether contemporizing plays is respectful of their source material.

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“Theater isn’t in a vacuum.  Plays aren’t clad in iron,” said Josh.  “We have done away with the notion that literature is sacred because our job as actors first and foremost is to fill up seats.  We have the freedom now to take great works of theater and bring them to a greater audience by addressing today’s relevant themes and playing up traditionally marginalized characters.  Imagine if we never retooled Romeo and Juliet — we’d live in a world without West Side Story.  If we put Pygmalion on a scholastic pedestal it would have prevented the creation of My Fair Lady.  Treating art too reverentially will only stifle how it’s meant to evolve organically.”

“Of course,” added Josh, “some plays defy the need for reinvention.  Les Misérables’ timeless tale of human struggle, forgiveness, and redemption will always speak to modern audiences no matter how long ago Hugo’s Paris existed.”  I rather agree.  I’d shudder to imagine Our Town set in North Saint Paul, and a family friendly production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf would lose a considerable deal of its dreadful, boozy charm.  That settled, I asked Josh what a theater actor does after he graduates college.

“I’m very fortunate.  I’ll be spending the summer in Creede, Colorado where I’ll perform in She Loves Me and Arsenic and Old Lace.  Getting paid work like that is huge when you’re right out of the gun like me.  I’ll start looking for new venues again in the fall.”

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I asked Josh if he’d like to be in movies one day.

“I think you might have imagined a young actor would,” answered Josh.  “There are more opportunities to now than ever, too, with the advent of venues like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.  In my perfect world, I’d like to be in a show like The Office, just a creative blast forge spent with the same group of people I can play off of all day.  If I could be in any movie remake, I’d kill to play Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.  Jesse Eisenberg’s acting in that film really made Zuckerberg a complete character, and Fincher’s direction made a banal story about a legal battle into something truly dramatic and compelling.  But wherever I wind up, I’ll be happy so long as I’m acting.”

Well, aren’t we all acting?  For instance, I’m acting whenever I call in sick to work or tell my parents I’ll pay them back all the money I owe them.  If you’d like an affordable opportunity to go watch some top-notch theater and a chance to see rising stars like Josh Zwick in action, I recommend anything that comes through Dowling Studio.  It was a real treat.

 

By David Scheller