When I was getting ready to go see Life’s Parade, Red Eye Theater’s enthralling new offering, I had planned everything save for one tiny detail; the rain. I took a very wet bike ride to Minneapolis, and finally arrived at the theater, drenched, and with enough water in my boots to fill an entire coffee mug. I sat and tried to dry off, waiting for the play to start. At this point, I caught myself thinking that I would really enjoy something warm and familiar, after blindly battling the unexpected rain for 30 minutes. I wanted something to take me down a road I’ve taken before, and on which I’d happily go back.
And so, the play began. From the moment I heard the first swirling instruments of the quintessential Broadway-style track that opens Life’s Parade, I knew I was in a familiar place. The loud, swinging music, the bright and colorful lights, the lead actress entering wearing a long, old-fashioned dress and a wig; it all brought a smile to my face. Everything was, by nature, incredibly present; yet it triggered a feeling of nostalgia I hadn’t had in awhile. I remembered the plays I had seen in Paris, I remembered listening to Sinatra at Christmas, dressing up and acting in front of my parents, and watching old musicals on VHS. That night, at the Red Eye Theater, I was home. In fact, Life’s Parade, before anything else, is a celebration of theater itself. Like TV for Community’s Abed Nadir, theater is “joyful, effortless, fun … It’s comfort.” And like TV, theater excels in representing fiction, a constructed, embellished version of reality.
Life’s Parade itself “lives in the shimmering liminal space that separates life from fiction,” explains Katharine Sherman, the playwright behind the show. Filled with the aforementioned nostalgic moments of sheer entertainment, as well as instances of live singing and trailers for Douglas Sirk’s greatest melodramas from the ’50s, Life’s Parade skillfully blurs the line between real life and mise en scène. And what better way to walk that flimsy line than by telling a story. But what makes a good story? For Cary, the protagonist of
Life’s Parade, it’s romance, it’s passion, it’s conflict. It’s well crafted characters, falling in love with each other, a tear on their cheek as they whisper the three worn words while “the music swells and the credits roll.” A myriad of picture perfect fantasies, to where Cary escapes to shun her unfulfilling day-to-day life, a dull reality filled with disappointing love stories. The real world is not only boring, it’s also quite sad. Cary has been divorced, bereaved, and has known a fair share of romantic misfortune in her long and tumultuous life. And as she enters the stage and turns on an old radio set, her mind wanders off to those glamorous landscapes inhabited by whimsical figures who play out Cary’s dreamed love stories.
And thus Life’s Parade continues to blur the line between fiction and reality. In an instance of theatrical mise en abyme for the books, the actors on stage interpret Cary’s reveries. They sing, run, deliver monologues and embody the different characters that populate her mind. It’s theater within theater, and like the comedies of Molière that also used this practice, it’s incredibly captivating. It allows the actors to play with the audience’s expectations, and keep them invested throughout. In the monologues too, masterfully declaimed by actresses Gretchen Grunzke and Katherine Kupiecki, it’s hard to see where reality ends and fiction begins. On several instances during the play, they take turn sitting at a table and telling a story – or simply chatting – to an imaginary interlocutor. Watching the show, I thought the stories were made up, and that the whole thing was scripted. Talking to Grunzke after the play had ended, I learned that the monologue were actually improvised, and inspired by past dates that the actresses had been on. It was all real, and yet so well conceived I thought it was in the script. It’s those little moments of doubt that make Life’s Parade so thrilling.
Then, beyond its compelling subject matter and delightful intricacies, Life’s Parade is just fun. I caught myself laughing many a time, in unison with an audience charmed and sometimes dazzled by the great acting and comedy at play. Miriam Must, Red Eye co-founder and Cary in the play, delivers an inspired performance; one that is both intuitive and meticulous. She is decidedly convincing, almost bewitching as she takes us through Cary’s romantic fantasies, with her soft voice and playful mannerisms. Unlike the endings of her character’s stories, Must is unexpected, often leading to situations that trigger a great laughter from the audience.
Life’s Parade was conceived and directed by other Red Eye co-founder Steve Busa, and even though it features a diverse cast of talented actors, two of them really stand out: Must and Gretchen Grunzke. Grunzke is brilliant throughout, and particularly shines in her monologues. Although we only get her side of the conversations, as she recounts fascinating stories to her imaginary date, it deceptively feels like a real dialogue. These monologues, and the play itself, are so entertaining that I felt slightly bitter when they concluded. But theater is a fiction, and when it ends, one has to come back to reality.
Life’s Parade runs until Oct. 29 at Red Eye Theater, 15 West 14th St in Minneapolis. Visit www.redeyetheater.org for more information. Red Eye offers student discounts.
by Marin Stefani