Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Brontide
Nimbus Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Men on Boats, MJ and Skeleton Crew

Jon Stentz and Peyton McCandless
Photo by Nimbus Theatre
Just slightly under a year ago, Nimbus Theatre premiered The Burning of Greenwood, an outstanding original play about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. It was a straight-forward, though highly dramatic, account of an historical event, told through characters based on actual people who were there. It was excellent work that could not have been clearer.

Nimbus is an exciting company because you never know what to expect next in the original plays they produce. Each of their past two seasons they have also mounted original holiday comedies, conceived as spoofs of the flock of Hallmark Channel movies that appear like clockwork at the Christmas season. They have just hit us with another brand-new work, The Brontide, this one in a totally different vein. It was written by Josh Cragun, but developed collaboratively by Cragun and co-directors Ernest Briggs and Mitchell Frazier. The Brontide crosshatches myths related to the origins of stories with a science-fictionalized plot to subvert the universe of stories and place it under monetized, totalitarian control. The play has a comic book sensibility, which I mean as a compliment, for the way it makes quick jumps between scenes, draws its characters in broad swaths, mixing realism with fantasy, and treats its audience as if we share an insider's perspective on the narrative.

I was initially flummoxed by the title, figuring that "Brontide" was an invented place or character's name. Turns out it is an actual word used by seismologists and meteorologists, meaning "a low muffled sound like distant thunder heard in certain seismic regions, especially along seacoasts and over lakes, and thought to be caused by feeble earth tremors." In the play, the brontide is the realm where stories originate, presided over by a mysterious personage named Briar, whose appearance can change just as stories do. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself here.

The play opens with baby boomer Joe Muckberg, a virtual reality designer working on his latest concept: acquire the property rights to all stories, thereby controlling (through his company, Alpha) humanity's means of creating and passing down its legacy. His next step is to use artificial intelligence to customize stories to each individuals' experience and desires, giving everyone exactly what they want–or what they think they want. To do this, Joe needs a device that allows him to enter the story-verse. Enter two nefarious agents from a sinister-sounding entity called The Firm. They will give Muckberg (they refuse to call him Joe, that's how sinister they are) a device called pandora that offers access to the story-verse, in exchange for control of his creation.

Quick cut to Sylvia, a scientist (never clear what branch of science she works on, but in stories like this a scientist is a scientist) who is hiring an over-eager fresh college grad named Raveena as her new assistant. Another quick cut brings us to an indie film company where studio chief Beatrice and her head of production, Eloise, are facing a crisis: they are being sued for theft of intellectual property in every one of their films in production, and their talent is being signed away, all by the same company.

The quick cuts continue back and forth, but when the narrative finds its way to the Brontide and characters–first Sylvia, then Eloise–encounter Briar, we linger a while, for Briar has lessons to convey to their visitors, and the lessons are relayed through stories, which are enacted for their edification and our delight. Shadow puppets and full-head animal masks are among the devices used to deliver these archetypal tales with finesse.

As in comic books, sometimes the pictures–whether formed by ink on paper or actors on stage–don't clearly let us know what their creator has in mind, but if we have been following along we will get the gist of the moment. By hanging on, soon enough we are back astride the narrative saddle, our sense of direction recovered as we journey through The Brontide's two acts.

The tone bounces around a bit too, sometimes mysterious, sometimes introspective, but mostly conveying a tongue-in-cheek attitude. The scenes in which Briar tells a story are fanciful but carry a sense of underlying meaning. As we attend to the ancient fables, we lean in to absorb their import. All of it is a pleasure to sit through. Though the eventual peril of human imagination is at stake, there is no depiction of anything horrific to disturb a young or delicately disposed audience member.

Co-directors Briggs and Frazier take their original concept, which Cragun developed into The Brontide, and animate the story, clipping together its episodes at a brisk pace, and maintaining a spirit I would describe as "let's have fun with this first, and think about its ramifications later." They have assembled a strong design team, with Erin Gustafson's set design, Rubble and Ash's costumes, and Nina Gourley's prop designs providing simple but effective visuals to complement the characters and story. Rubble and Ash's playful costumes for Briar are especially delightful. But the heavy lifting is done by Alice Endo's lighting and Dameun Strange's sound, altering the tones from scene to scene to in sync with degrees of plotting, analyzing, mystery, danger and discovery. Strange's sonic creation of the low rumble that is a brontide establishes those scenes as a dimension typically unvisited by mere humans.

The cast all gamely put their hearts into the parts they play. Kirby Hoberg, as scientist Sylvia, conveys unflappable stability and rationality, taking each development in stride and open to learning by experiences. Wasima Farah aptly exhibits Raveena's jitteriness as a new entrant in the work force, though her shaky bearing and fast line-reading make it difficult to make out much of what she says. Still, we are able to discern the gist. Peyton McCandless and Starla Larson, as film execs Beatrice and Eloise, deliver the sharp-elbowed dialogue and deal-making brio expected of behind-the-scenes movie hot shots, with Larson's Eloise exhibiting an openness to rethinking reality when she enters the Brontide.

Jon Stentz's take on Joe effectively portrays a man whose intellect is infested with an excess ambition, devoting himself to increased wealth and power. Even more sinister are Aleya Berry and David P. Schneider, totally committed to their depiction of evil agents from The Firm. As the play progresses, they increasingly acquire the appearance of dung beetles, each carrying a shell on their back and slithering in their movements and speech. They work remarkably well together, finishing one another's sentences without missing a beat and pressing atop and aside one another, which creates a surprisingly discomfiting effect.

Kolie Shaw as Briar, benevolently presides over the Brontide, intent on bringing meaning and progress to the lives of humans. Briar changes appearance from scene to scene, and Shaw alters the character's demeanor correspondingly. Shaw expresses Briar's impulse to be helpful to Sylvia, along with Briar's wisdom in asserting that what matters most is not the stories, but the purposes to which they are put.

Unlike The Burning of Greenwood, The Brontide will not leave audiences better informed about an important chapter of our history. The Brontide prompts us, instead, to think about how stories originate, how they are told, and how they are transmitted to future generations. Thus, the new play serves a different purpose, but no less legitimate, and as Briar instructs us, it is not the story but its purpose that matters most.

The Brontide could benefit from some tightening and a bit more clarity in presenting the story and its purpose. They do succeed in making this play a happy meeting of imagination, thoughtful ideas, and fun.

The Brontide, presented by Nimbus Theatre, runs through June 9, 2024, at Crane Theater, 2303 Kennedy Street N.E., Minneapolis MN. For more information and tickets, please visit or call 612-548-1379.

Playwright: Josh Cragun; Directors: Ernest Briggs and Mitchell Frazier; Set Design: Erin Gustafson; Costume Design: Rubble & Ash; Lighting Design: Alice Endo; Sound Design: Dameun Strange; Prop Design: Nina Gourley; Stage Manager: Alyssa Thompson.

Cast: Aleya Berry (Agent Holder), Wasima Farah (Raveena), Kirby Hoberg (Sylvia), Starla Larson (Eloise), Peyton McCandless (Beatrice), David P. Schneider (Agent Vall), Kolie Shaw (Briar), Jon Stentz (Joe Muckberg).