By Okko Leo
Translated by Kristian London
Directed by Brad Akin
Produced by Akvavit Theatre
Playing at Rivendell Theatre
Finnish Satire is Tough
Humor is difficult to do successfully across cultures. That’s particularly true of humor that is based on irony, detachment, or, in the case of young Finnish playwright Okko Leo’s Orkesteri, now in its American debut with Akvavit Theatre, “tragicomedy.” Akvavit’s mission is to produce contemporary dramas from the Nordic countries on Chicago stages, and it often has to commission new translations to do so. Orkesteri, or The Orchestra, is a 2013 drama about struggling musicians which has apparently garnered enough attention in Finland to have resulted in a TV movie adaptation. People more immersed in Nordic culture may enjoy it; Akvavit bills it as “Fargo meets This is Spinal Tap.” But I found it the play’s wobbling between seriousness, absurdity, and farce annoying, and having no idea what tone the production was going for, wound up confused by characters who are either too stupid to be believable or too believable to be absurd.
We begin with a bride (Emily Demko) rushing out in tears, flipping off the building she ran from, and dumping the contents of a hot pot. Apparently, she’s not the only bride who has had a bad wedding recently. Halla (Tony St. Claire), one of the members of the band Everlast, which has been reduced to playing at weddings, recently witnessed a bride “with small tits” having a similar meltdown. He asks his bandmate, Rane (Steve Herson) about the meaning of it, but gets no satisfying answer. Rane has a dying father, and to keep calm, practices target shooting. Life for them is very stressful. The youngest band member, Timi (Josiah Kumpost), has just been admitted to an academy and still is naïve enough to expect to be paid what he was promised, and the front man, Jase (Jim Poole), is an alcoholic megalomaniac who shows up late and drunk. But Jase has a plan to turn their lives around: he has invited Halla’s step-sister, Simone (Bergen Anderson), a Finnish Idol winner, to the wedding under false pretenses, and if he can convince her to go onstage with them, he expects them to regain fame and legitimacy. But Halla is deeply jealous of his sister, and wants nothing to do with her.
The dying father, splitting of the band, and sibling rivalry, among other problems, makes The Orchestra sound like a realistic drama, but it isn’t. Halla is borderline mentally disabled; he obsessively counts seconds on phone calls to save money, but gets lost and distracted, usually by his hunger, whenever Timi and Jase discuss the future of the band. Not that he’s missing much, since Jase’s plans are clearly delusional, and every disagreement turns into a fight over something unrelated and petty. Disgusted by the band’s behavior, Simone refuses to go on with them, but the band is barred from returning to the stage anyway due to being suspected of stealing the hot pot from the prologue, and in their panic, accidently wind up holding her hostage, barricading the door, and firing the gun while she cries rape. Following an argument over who should pay for negotiations with the police on Halla’s phone, they issue demands, including being told the reason for the earlier bride with small tits’ meltdown and money for Timi, although that leads to a debate on whether too much money might encourage him to give up music or get distracted by partying. They decide Simone is entitled to a demand, too, but it has to be something reasonable and in the spirit of solidarity.
It would be fine to have exaggerated characters in a ridiculous situation if it were done consistently. Jim Poole plays Jase, who is, admittedly, drunk, as a caricature whose fake sobbing briefly wins Simone’s sympathy because this is a world where absurd things happen. But Herson plays Rane as a quite realistically troubled man who is aware that his family is in shambles and that his artistic career peaked in 1995, but that it’s all he has left. Kumpost plays immature Timi more on the side of caricature, while St. Clair gives an infuriatingly plausible performance of a genuine moron who never stops talking or whining. Anderson is stuck with a character who makes no sense at all, and while she’s believable in each moment, there’s no written connection between her actions in each part of a scene. Also, Ryan David Heywood plays Hannu, a silent band member who everybody else refuses to acknowledge, even though he goes along with their collective decisions. This character is set up as a joke from the beginning, since Brad Akin’s director’s note describes how irrelevant he is. In this, Akin seems to follow the lead of Okko Leo, whose work demonstrates an interest in the disposability of unappreciated employees. Would I have enjoyed The Orchestra more if I’d known how absurd this dark comedy is? I don’t know; the production’s own seriousness made its illogical script more frustrating than funny, and it drags on longer than is wise.
Reviewed December 11, 2015
For more information, see The Orchestra’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N Ridge Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $20 with discounts for students and seniors; for information on ordering. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through January 10, 2016 (no performances December 24-25). Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.