Comedy and complexity shape ‘Beethoven Blatz’ play

Cast and crew: (Back left) Craig Langlois, technician; Roger Lantz, light design, Bobbi Goddard, ‘Teen’; Eric Nyland, Blatz; Armin Wiebe, playwright; Alana Freistadt, stage manager; Miranda Hughes, costume design; Christopher Brauer, director. (Front) Tracy Penner, Susch; Philip Munson, Obrum.

Cast and crew: (Back left) Craig Langlois, technician; Roger Lantz, light design, Bobbi Goddard, ‘Teen’; Eric Nyland, Blatz; Armin Wiebe, playwright; Alana Freistadt, stage manager; Miranda Hughes, costume design; Christopher Brauer, director. (Front) Tracy Penner, Susch; Philip Munson, Obrum.

Newly-weds Susch and Obrum enjoy each other in every way. But their bliss soon morphs into a complex exploration of love and ‘wantings’ in, ‘The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz.’

The play opened at the Station Arts Theatre in Rosthern to a packed house that enjoyed a lot of laughs. It’s a finely nuanced comedic look at married life on the prairies in the 30s, in a Mennonite community.

Playwright Armin Wiebe was in the audience for Saturday’s performance. Wiebe said seeing the production come to life at Station Arts was “exhilarating.”

“It just felt right all the way through. I’m so thrilled that this is happening here and how wonderful a theatre this is.” The play was first produced at Theatre Projects Manitoba in Winnipeg five years ago, with Kim McCaw as director. “It’s a playwright’s dream in Canada to get a second production,” he said.

Wiebe was less involved in this production than the first. “It was fascinating to see how different things were done, and yet the same things came out that I wanted to have come out. I know the play, but it was still full of surprises. To me it felt like the audience was experiencing what I wanted them to experience.”

The play presents a hilarious sampling of Mennonite-isms. Wiebe says you don’t have to be a Mennonite to enjoy it, but “this play wanted to use Plautdietsch,” with a mainstay of ‘buggered-up English’ and some warped High German.

Susch and Obrum Kehler’s life together begins with a broken piano, poison ivy, a wanna-be Beethoven (Blatz) and a midwife friend. Relationships become increasingly convoluted as Blatz takes up residence in the Kehler household, ostensibly to fix the piano and give Susch lessons. Susch and Obrum seek a solution to a problem that confronts them, while Teen, the midwife tries to deal with her own wantings.

Eric Nyland (Blatz) and Tracy Penner (Susch) were in the original production. A concert pianist and professional actor, Nyland brought samplings of Beethoven and some of his own compositions to the play, as his tortured musings tried to find expression on the broken piano.

Tracy Penner shines as the lead character, with an astonishing range of emotion and comedic expressions. “Susch reaches and then she follows through and takes charge,” said Wiebe. “She could be played as a victim. But she’s not, and in the end she wants her cake and eat it too.”

The complexity of relationships is compounded by the liberal use of some amusing ‘double speak’ and metaphoric allusions, which create much of the humour in the production. When Obrum asks Blatz to ‘tune the instrument (wink, wink),’ the meaning gradually becomes clear to a confounded Blatz.

Christopher Brauer was called on late in the day to take the director’s role when Kim McCaw, who was slated to direct, faced a health crisis. Brauer is a professor in the theatre program at the University of Winnipeg. He had seen the original production and knew a cast member or two.

“When I saw the show I loved it. That’s how I met Armin and got to know him a little bit, and I raved about how much I loved the show,” he said. Brauer finds that many playwrights who write domestic plays don’t go beyond dealing with family dysfunctions.

“Whereas Armin, in this play, is genuinely writing about bigger ideas than families. He’s writing about the ways in which we discover a bigger, more creative view of the world where we are.” He said the play moves into some unconventional territory and in the end all the characters are okay with that.

“I love that,” he said. “That’s a courageous piece of writing. This is a play that hits so many big things that go beyond relationships in the simplest way and the most profound way.”

Station Arts attracts over 4,000 visitors during the summer theatre season, according to co-executive director, Nicole Thiessen. Current art exhibits include Leah Dorian a Metis artist, and ‘Postcards to the Station.’

Show nights take on a party atmosphere at Station Arts. Snacks and beverages were available during intermission and after the show, and people stayed late to mingle.

The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz runs July 8 to August 7, with some shows offering pre-show lunches and dinners.