“Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter” at Minetta Lane Theatre

September 1, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Book, Music and Lyrics by Ivar Pall Jonsson
Story by Ivar Pall Jonsson and Gunnlaugur Jonsson
Directed by Bergur Ingólfsson
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“If you act like you know what you are doing, people will believe you know what you are doing.”

What do you call a nation-state that seeks prosperity for its citizens, encourages personal responsibility, prefers not to be dependent on other nation-states for its needs, and supports a deep and abiding faith in an all-powerful deity? The United States? England? Saudi Arabia? Try “Elbowville,” located somewhere in Ragnar Arnarsson’s elbow where the residents depend upon Lobster trapping for income. Ivar Pall Jonsson’s “Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter” (hereafter “Revolution”) is the story of the rise and fall and rebirth of this small but determined elbow-based town.

“Revolution” is not just about a 2008 subprime mortgage crisis or yet another recession: it is about all those “bubbles” that burst, all those “prosperities“ that fail to provide redemption and release from life’s often traumatic vicissitudes. This new musical is a trope – here an extended metaphor – for the underbelly of prosperity, the flip-side of success, and the hypocrisy of systems-based autocracies. Elbowville’s economy is on the downside and Peter (Marrick Smith) continues to pitch new ideas to Mayor Manuela (Cady Huffman) and sidekick Kolbein (Patrick Boll): finally his promissory note generator wins their approval and a shaky prosperity rises over Elbowville’s horizon.

Prosperity quickly turns to financial ruin for the residents who cannot repay the useless promissory notes downgraded by Mandrake (Rick Faugno) and Peter has a difficult time restoring faith in himself. He has lost his girlfriend Brynja (Jesse Wildman) to his brother Alex (Graydon Long) who gets exiled from town through a coin-toss bet. Alone and depressed and without hope, Peter takes his own life. We see this suicide within the opening moments of the musical which itself is an extended flashback explaining the cause of the suicide. Elbowville’s residents revolt; however, the revolution ultimately re-seats the same corrupt leaders in office and the cycle repeats.

“Revolution” is replete with rich imagery and thoughtful tropes – many of them biblical and mythological. Mr. Smith (Peter) and Mr. Long (Alex) are the consummate Cain and Abel and it is Peter’s inability to survive wearing the mark of his curse that leads to his self-destruction. Their songs together – “Let’s Make An Oath” and “Heads or Lobster” require exquisite vocal control and range and both young men display the necessary craft. Their performances are honest and profoundly authentic. Further, Mr. Smith’s Peter serves as a trope for redemption: he does not want to drag his peers “to the cross” with him. He is willing to take the fall.

Mr. Long’s scene with Ms. Wildman (Brynja) at the musical’s end is also a touching scene. As a new Adam and Eve, they escape from the not-quite-idyllic Eden-ville to attempt a new start. Their “Our Revolution” with the ensemble is riveting and provides the necessary cathartic release for the audience. Cady Huffman’s Manuela is just perfect: this well-rounded character blames all problems on people not taking responsibility (recurring theme) and is as much Maleficent as she is manipulative. Ms. Huffman’s styling of her plaintive prayer to Elbowville’s Hollywood deity – “Oh Bob” – is spot on and provides one of the musical’s moments of sheer perfection.

Bergur Ingolfsson directs “Revolution’s” energetic and talented cast with precision and depth. The cast creates authentic characters – not caricatures – and Mr. Ingolfsson provides convincing staging throughout. Although there is some delicious tapping, the choreography needs some attention: this talented cast needs to be pirouetting and sliding across the stage much more often and not just standing still. This is an easy fix: Lee Proud is clearly up to this challenge.

Petr Hlousek‘s expansive set encompasses the entire space of the Minetta Lane Theatre: the side walls are lined with lymphatic system tubing that connect Elbowville to the rest of Ragnar’s body parts and his projection design is brilliant. During Brynja and Peter’s powerful duet, “Love Weighs 200 Tons,” their push-pull movements appear as silhouettes on the back wall. At first, the audience assumes these are the actual shadows of the actors; however, they are independent projections which the actors imitate precisely until the silhouettes take on a life of their own and reflect the inner feelings of the characters. Jeff Croiter’s lighting design makes all that the cast and creative team attempt become a dazzling reality. His nuanced and subtle lighting makes “Elbowville” a “pretty how town with up so floating many bells down” (E. E. Cummings).

This new musical deserves a broad-based audience. There are enough musical styles and allusions to satisfy the musical novice and the sophisticated musical aficionado (“Evita,” “Spring Awakening,” The Rocky Horror Show,” “Urinetown,” “Tommy” and more). Bravo, “Revolution!”