Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Your credentials as a Minnesotan will need to be reviewed if you are not at least somewhat familiar with the saga of the Kensington Runestone. In 1898, Swedish immigrant farmer Olof Ohman (played with conviction, and gloriously sung by Sasha Andreev) unearthed a large stone while he and his son Edward were digging out a tree stump. The stone, about three feet tall by fifteen inches wide, was covered with what appeared to be runic inscriptions like those used in late middle age Nordic cultures. A date on the stone placed the inscriptions at 1362. Jumpin' lutefisk! Did this mean a Viking party had made it to central Minnesota, very far inland from their known landings on the Atlantic coast of North America? That was the tale revealed when the runes were translated. That became Olof's steadfast belief and was quickly taken up by town boosters, as a way to put rural Kensington on the map.
But just a year later, after examination by University-bred runologists, the stone was declared a hoax, and Olof was taunted as a shyster for trying to foist a hoax on his community. Olof vehemently denied these accusations, but it wasn't until 1907 that the reputations of both the stone and Olaf were salvaged when a young historian and writer named Hjalmar Holand (well played to express Holand's false modesty by Adam Qualls) found evidence that, he attested, proved its authenticity. Holand took possession of the stone, even travelling with it to Europe (in 1911) to conduct further research and earn handsome fees through speaking engagements. In 1948 the stone was put on display at the Smithsonian Institute. One year later it was removed, as a new team of investigators raised more evidence that it was a fraud. The debates about the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone volleyed back and forth, though in time the argument against it became most commonly accepted. But not by everyone. Whether in truth it is a priceless artifact or an utter sham, it found its way to a specially built Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, where it remains to this day.
The Kensington Runestone is a thing of interest in itself, no doubt, but what the creative team for Runestone!–bookwriter and lyricist Mark Jenson, composer Gary Rue, and director Tyler Michaels King–has cleverly done is to make the show less about the stone and more about the dynamics by which a discovery becomes contested, washed this way and that in a sea of alternative facts and divergent understandings of history. There must be a true story at the root of the Runestone debate, though by now no one living can be certain what that truth is. Neither side is willing to concede an inch to the other. If this sounds familiar to those who follow recent national events, I suspect that's exactly what the witty creators of the show had in mind.
Runestone! has been long aborning, first surfacing in 2002 in the inaugural year of History Theatre's Raw Stages development series. If what the creators of the piece were after was a straightforward telling of the saga, with all of its reversals and idiosyncrasies–including the difficult, at times tragic effect it had on Olof Ohman's family–that could have been accomplished just as well without music, perhaps providing an even crisper narrative. Then, in 2015 playwright Mark Jensen invited composer/musician Gary Rue to create a rock score for the show, and it was finally scheduled to premiere in 2020 before being sidelined by the pandemic.
While the songs are not particularly memorable, the music deepens a sense of irony in the show, with its anachronistic musical voice, vaudevillian dance breaks, and the opportunity to insert sardonic lyrics as ballast to the more sincere voice of the book scenes. The contrasting tone between the show's book and its songs also gives us a sense of watching two shows at once–the one telling the lore of the Kensington Runestone, the other about the less than precise methods by which we differentiate truth from innocently construed rumor from intentional deceitfulness.
To be sure, the split between the tones is not completely a clean cut. There are some running jokes imbedded into the book which, unfortunately, become tiresome with each retelling. There are also a few songs that express, with utmost sincerity, a character's heartfelt feelings. These are reserved for Olof Ohman and his family: Olof struggling to give up his fixation with the stone ("Time to Forget What They Say"); Olof's wife Karin's (a lovely performance by Ivory Doublette) fears of the toll the runestone is taking on Olof ("Runes of Ruin"); their daughter Amanda's (Kiko Laureano) turmoil as the last surviving family member, contending with the still-raging battle over her father's good name ("Spinning"); and the final song, powerfully sung by Andreev, in which he challenges the audience to decide what they think about the runestone based on their judgment of his character ("Olof's Lament").
Tyler Michaels King does an excellent job of balancing the show's dueling tones, allowing space for both to take root. The effect is that we see how chance, timing, pride, and duplicity can all intrude on what passes for historical record, while also being party to the feelings that the way the story is told has on those who live through it. A few songs allow for lively dance routines–"Big Wigs" is best of the lot–well-devised by choreographer Stephanie Anne Bertumen.
In addition to the aforementioned Andreev, Doublette, Qualls and Laureano, strong performances are given by Ryan London Levin as Ohman's son Edward, capturing his stages from ten-year-old farm boy to insolent teenager who puts distance between himself and his notorious family. All of the actors, other than Andreev, play multiple roles and serve as the singing, dancing ensemble. All are dandy in those capacities, including, at the performance I attended, understudy Peyton Dixon playing roles usually performed by John Andrew Hegge.
Joel Sass's set design provides an atmospheric backdrop of rows of cornstalks and a small antique tractor on one side, along with runic images including what appears to be an ancient cloth hung from above, which for most of the show conceals the band from the audience, emblazoned with a huge letter "R" written in runic style. If that is not an established font, it should be–what it resembles most is the lettering used in "The Flintstones." Also, a large circle drawn upon the floor has what look like runic letters placed around its circumference. Sonya Berlovitz has costumed the actors with contemporary attire over which vests, aprons, skirts, jackets, and other trappings are placed, giving a sense of being told the story from a contemporary perspective. Karin Olson's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound serve the physical production well. Musical director Brian Pekol plays keyboard and heads up the four-piece band, which includes composer Gary Rue playing guitar. Along with bass player Colby Hansen and drummer David Rapheal, the band handles Rue's songs with aplomb.
Runestone! is an enjoyable show, continuing History Theatre's track record of over forty years, lifting up state and regional history. It offers entertainment along with some enlightenment, in this case not only on our history, but also on the uncertainty that accompanies our accounting of events–something that continues to be a challenge as we struggle to find the truth behind the daily news, depending on whose version of the story we hear.
Runestone! runs through May 29, 2022, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $35.00 - $48.00; seniors (age 60+) $30.00 - $43.00; under 30 -$30.00; Students, ages 5-18, $15.00 with ID. Golden Circle tickets: $53.00, no discounts. For tickets and information call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Book and Lyrics: Mark Jensen; Music, Additional Lyrics and Arrangements: Gary Rue; Director: Tyler Michaels King; Music Director: Brian Pekol; Choreography: Stephanie Anne Bertumen; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Laurie Flanigan Hegge; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Production Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Stage Manager: Haley Walsh; Assistant Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler; Producing and Directing Associate: Richard D. Thompson.
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Olof Ohman), Ivory Doublette (Karin Ohman, Professor Rygh, ensemble), Jon Andrew Hegge (Johan Holvik, Elbow Lake reporter, ensemble), Ryan London Levin (Edward Ohman, Sam Sieverts, ensemble), Kiko Laureano (Amanda Ohman, Alexandria reporter, ensemble), Eric Morris (Walter Gran, JP Hedberg, King Magnus, ensemble), Wesley Mouri (Walter Gran, Captain Knutson, ensemble), Adam Qualls (Hjalmar Holand Minneapolis reporter, ensemble).