The reviews are in for “Song of Extinction”

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Theater LatteDa presents Song of Extinction at the Guthrie Theater through March 20

All photos by Michal Daniel

The following are excerpts of reviews for “Song of Extinction” in various news outlets in the Twin Cities. Click on the links to read the full reviews.

From Rob Hubbard at the Pioneer Press:

The avoidance of pain is a core human instinct. But to what lengths will people go to dodge difficult truths? In “Song of Extinction” — a very good new play by EM Lewis — almost all of the characters are trying to bury their pain in something else, be it music, teaching or even entomology.

But these truths eventually must be confronted, and when the characters do so, it turns into powerful theater. “Song of Extinction” is receiving its area premiere from Theater Latte Da in a production filled with compassion for its characters and a delicate touch that makes it a very moving drama.

While Theater Latte Da is known for producing musicals, this play is light on music, most of it emanating from the cello of Dan Piering. He plays Max, a high school student whose mother is in her final days of a battle with cancer. Music is his escape, while his father retreats into an obsession with saving a species of insect he has discovered.

Filled with anger and despair, Max is a prime candidate for self-destruction until his Cambodian biology teacher intervenes. A survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, Khim Phan employs straight talk and as much love as his damaged heart can offer to try to get Max’s mind back on his schoolwork.

To the credit of author Lewis and director Peter Rothstein, no point is belabored, no audience member bludgeoned with a message. For a work with so many layers, it’s nevertheless almost minimalist in structure, its dialogue convincingly realistic, its tone admirably restrained.

Dan Piering as Max Forrestal and David Mura as Khim Pham in The Guthrie Theater presentation of a Theater Latté Da production of “Song of Extinction” by EM Lewis, directed by Peter Rothstein.

From John Olive at Howwastheshow.com

Song Of Extinction is a fierce meditation on death, species extinction, grief, familial dysfunction, adolescent anger, and the redemptive power of music. It’s often frustrating – but, really, what truly ambitious play isn’t? This piece is intense, rich, affecting.

Playwright Lewis approaches her story with cinematic theatricality: scenes are short, often just fragments, woven together with music, dreamy lights (and harsh fluorescents), flashbacks, soliloquies. All this imparts an hallucinatory intensity to the proceedings.

Lily Forrestal is dying, of cancer. Her husband Ellery, perhaps as a defense, obsesses on the fate of a Bolivian insect, about to become extinct, and thus ignores his wife’s physical deterioration, as well as his 15 year old son Max’s building anger. Left to his own devices, unfed and dirty, Max (with his ever-present cello) washes up in the office of Khim Phan, a high school biology teacher, a man caught up in his grief for his family, slaughtered thirty plus years earlier in the Cambodian killing fields. I will refrain from describing in detail what happens when Pham visits the Forrestals in the hospital late at night. Know that it’s surprising and highly effective.

All in all, marvelous stuff. But this play is tricky: the heavy use of theatrical techniques makes us pull back, whereas the story makes us want to lean in, embrace the characters. This creates a tension which, for the most part, director Peter Rothstein (also Latté Da’s Artistic Director) handles well.

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Carla Noack as Lily Forrestal, David Mura as Khim Pham and John Middleton as Ellery Forrestal in The Guthrie Theater presentation of a Theater Latté Da production of Song of Extinction

From Graydon Royce at Star Tribune:

Simplicity is greatly underestimated in theatrical virtuosity. The trick is to not starve your work of its emotion and its power, yet craft lean scenes that don’t waste our energy.

Playwright E.M. Lewis accomplishes all this in “Song of Extinction.” Director Peter Rothstein’s production, which Theater Latté Da opened Saturday at the Guthrie Studio, honors the delicacy of Lewis’ work, and the result is 90 minutes of poignant worthiness…

…Mura’s background as a poet informs his portrayal of Phan, his phrasing and rhythms landing precisely on Lewis’ words. He orates memories of the Cambodian killing fields, his assimilation in the United States and frustration that Americans can’t imagine extinction for themselves. He, on the other hand, is the lone survivor of his family and understands the fragility of existence.

Noack has a flinty resignation as Lily, but also some wild-eyed morphine-fueled moments in which her bed is transformed into a vessel floating through a river of hallucination.

As Max, Piering avoids so many of the “young performer” potholes that exist when a role requires such emotional investment. Not to mention he plays his cello beautifully.

Technically and scenically — with music undergirding the story and mood — this production also has an economy of construction that again allows the story to tell itself.

It’s really that simple.

And from Ed Huyck at City Pages:

Young teenager Max Forrestal is a mess. He shows up to school day after day in the same dirty clothes. He is rake thin, as if he hasn’t eaten in days. He appears content to hide in the back of the class, duct-taped cello case at his side, listening to his iPod rather than the teacher–when he bothers to show up.

Most of his teachers are willing to just ignore the symptoms of a student in crisis, except for biology instructor Khim Phan. At the same age as Max, Khim lived through Cambodia’s killing fields, and he recognizes someone on the verge of a personal extinction.

Their relationship lives at the core of E.M. Lewis’s Song of Extinction, which–despite some shortcomings–gets a powerful and moving reading from Theatre Latte Da. That’s fostered in part by remarkable performances from Dan Piering as Max and David Mura as Khim, along with a staging that never blinks in the face of deep pain.

Max’s problems are fueled by his parents. His father, Ellery (John Middleton), is obsessed with saving a species of insect from extinction at the hands of an “evil” developer (Gary Geiken, whose character is bad because, in part, he wears very ugly pants while playing golf) and barely acknowledges his son. His mother, Lily (Carla Noack), is in the final stages of cancer, and her extinction weighs heavily on Max’s mind.

Lewis does everything short of underlining these themes onstage, and that sometimes makes for clunky drama. The evil developer is the worst example of this, doing nothing more than serving as a point of conflict than being a fully realized character like the rest of the cast.

Still, the core drama of a family facing their own Armageddon fuels the play, and Lewis writes with a deft touch….As you can guess, Song of Extinction isn’t a joy ride, but director Peter Rothstein gives the piece his signature stamp, helping the audience find the real humanity behind the stark hospital room and lonely home that Max inhabits.

Have you seen “Song of Extinction?” If so, what did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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