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REVIEW: Orphans and NHCC’s New Blackbox (North Hennepin Community College)

It seems like every other month that another long-time theatre in the Twin Cities announces its closure, caught between rising property values and fundraising woes. Discovering a new performance spaces being created is a welcome counter-current of good news.

Last week, I attended an incredible dramatic performance of Lyle Kessler’s play Orphans in an unlikely location: the second floor of the Student Center of North Hennepin Community College (NHCC). The college has taken this location and created a black box theatre, which opened with the theatre department’s 2017-18 season. Director Mike Ricci, a professor at the NHCC Theatre Department, has crafted a moving production of this play that shows the potential of this new theatre space.

The black box playing space was itself a long-time “orphaned space” in NHCC’s student center in Brooklyn Park. Ricci recognized its potential and lobbied the college for several years to adapt it into a black box theatre, which was finally realized this year. The result is a small, comfortable theatre that could easily accommodate intimate drama and exciting experimental work.

The title of Orphans describes the crux of its story, which follows two brothers who were orphaned as children after the death of their mother. When the play opens, the brothers are now adults and living together; you soon realize that the characters are emotionally stunted because of their childhood trauma. The oldest, Treat, is played by Kyle Knutson. Growing up, Treat would slam doors in the faces of social workers to keep them from taking his younger brother, Phillip (played by Nick Adams). Treat apparently supports his brother and himself through petty theft. Phillip is reclusive, never venturing outside because of his fears of having terrible allergic reactions.

One night, Treat comes home with a much older man, played by Robert Permenter. Treat immediately binds the old man to a chair with string and duct tape. The brothers look at the man’s clothes and briefcase and surmise he is a wealthy businessman for whom someone will pay a hefty ransom. However, from this point on, the audience is asking themselves one question: “Is this Dad?” Whether or not the man is actually their father, he gains the trust of the young men and lavishes them with fatherly attention.

The play is a study of the effects positive familiar relationships have upon children. The audience in the black box theatre inwardly cheer as Treat responds to positive feedback he never received as a child. Phillip grows by leaps and bounds as the old man takes him by the hand into the outside world. As Treat, Knutson gives a particularly dramatic portrayal when he shows his character’s devastation when he finally expresses his long suppressed grief over the death of his mother.

Orphans is particular well suited for the intimacy of the black box space. The actors’ close proximately to the audience amplifies the emotional impact of the play and draws in the audience as part of the emotional support for Treat and Phillip. NHCC’s new theatre is a welcome playing space to the Twin Cities theatre scene.

Orphans closed March 3 at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, MN.

Dan Reiva