“Now Circa Then,” A New England Premiere Charms in Chester
“What’s past is prologue” the young man Gideon (Luke Hofmaier) quotes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in this modern romance by Carly Mensch. What he is explaining to his coworker Margie (Lilli Hokama) at an Immigrant Museum is that all that has come before has led up to this moment where we have choices to make. They are tour guides in a museum not unlike The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan who have been “cast” to portray two German immigrants from the town of Moloschyna in West Prussia in the late nineteenth century who have immigrated to America. The museum is in one of the historic buildings and the employees welcome patrons in and share conditions of what it was like to live and work there. We are their museum guests watching the immigrants Jacob & Josephina’s story and the employees Gideon & Margie who portray them.
They are not actors. He is a History Major who has fallen hard for historical reenacting and considers himself an educator. He’s played Gettysburg, Plymouth, Daniel Webster. He reads James Madison for fun. He is a stickler for detail and accuracy, getting history right. She has escaped to New York from Michigan where she had a bad boyfriend, a job as a pharm tech and fears that she will turn into her sister who has just become pregnant and looks forward to staying home raising babies. Margie wants to reach her full potential and do something amazing with her life. She’s there for the job and thinks history is bullshit. Their argument back and forth holds great interest and at times can wound when he asks if it isn’t irresponsible of her to be working this job with the way she feels and wondering how they could have even hired her, a Japanese-American to play this German woman. She can give as good as she gets and by the night they share a beer after-hours her role-playing as Gideon’s wife has led her to a relationship with him which quickly escalates.
The play asks many questions of the audience like the Wonder Cabinets, the museums of the seventeenth century that Gideon reveres because they offer “No answers, only questions.” The character Gideon interacts with the real audience and asks “Where are you from?” It is impossible for me not to watch this play today and not feel that the immigrant experience is the American experience and that we all come from situations not unlike those of the refugees who are in the internment camps today on our southern border. The play is a celebration of the promise of America, the promise that here it is possible to reinvent yourself and change what your destiny is by taking a risk, working hard and striving to be authentic.
The actors Luke Hofmaier and Lilli Hokama are irresistibly charming and great company for the evening. He is a delightful young actor with an impish grin and an open accessibility but can try your patience especially in the second act as their character’s relationship evolves and his character becomes more pedantic. Hofmaier has developed such a rapport with the audience that we are inclined to forgive him. Hokama is sensational whether trying out physical bits, like the many different ways to stand when pregnant, her reticence at receiving a gift so early in the relationship or her confrontations that can cut both him and herself. The supportive, friendly audience on opening night was as smitten as I and gave them a well-deserved extended ovation.
I admired director Sean Christopher Lewis’s work with the young actors, it was always crystal clear where the characters were emotionally and the scenes where they played the immigrants Jacob and Josephina that were informed by their personal relationship were great fun. The set by David Towlun is all door and window frames. I loved the pressed tin roof overhead and the hanging clothes line on the back wall. Lighting by Lara Dubin was exceptional in the small space. The evening began with the house open to half a dozen different variations (Big Band, Middle Eastern, Bluegrass, etc.) of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” sound design by Tom Shread.
Chester Theatre Company is celebrating its 30th year and operates out of the small Town Hall. They do new intimate plays with small casts and are a required destination for the serious theater fan in the Northeast. If you’ve never been, it’s a singular experience that I think you will really treasure and its only an hour and 15 minutes from downtown Albany.
I kept thinking of the Faulkner quote “The past is not dead, it’s not even past” which then Candidate Obama evoked in his speech on race when addressing the Reverend Wright controversy. Chester Theatre Company’s “Now Circa Then” makes the past live again.
Chester Theatre Company
15 Middlefield Rd
Chester, MA 01011