Theatre Review: ‘The Warmblooded’ by the Tampere Workers’ Theatre, as part of Nordic Cool 2013 at the Kennedy Center

Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

The Tampere Workers’ Theatre of Finland has existed since 1901; as its name implies, and as The Warmblooded demonstrates, this theatre is addressed to the sensibilities of working people.  Since World War II, Finland has grown steadily more prosperous, with an extensive educational culture and one of the world’s most comprehensive social security systems.  Yet, in the world of The Warmblooded, that belief in prosperity and progress has led to significant socio-economic problems, problems that are now rending its world asunder.

…a presentational style that makes its economic arguments resonate right along side its empathetic characters.

The Warmblooded is a play of paradoxes, with a style that counters its abundant humanity, with vision that chaffs its good-natured joy.   The Warmblooded takes its Washington audience to a place we almost never go to when we attend the theatre; yet, ironically, it is the place this same audience constantly goes to as we wait in traffic jams listening to newscasts: the realm which the political debate from the Right calls “class warfare” and the Left calls “life as we know it.” In other words, The Warmblooded is political theatre, straight and simple, done with good spirit and without rancor, in a presentational style that makes its economic arguments resonate right along side its empathetic characters.

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Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Before the play even begins the audience finds itself staring at the world’s latest monument to culture—the highway overpass.  Yes, that’s right—close-up and personal, the overpass’s edifice towers above us making each one of us feel small in its presence.  Strangely, however, this overpass of a set, designed by Hannu Lindholm and lit by Marjaana Mutanen, is no longer an overpass.  No, in a nod to functionality dictating identity, this overpass is now but an extremely expensive rain shelter for a homeless family and a group of Romanian Gypsies.  As one character quips: it’s a multimillion dollar mansion without walls or floors; for, when the economic downturn hit, the overpass’s reason for existence evaporated mid-construction; so its half completed façade now looms like another bridge to nowhere.

As the play begins we meet the Kotala family, led by matriarch Gram, the wool-hat-knitting, sharp witted grandmother, played with simple dignity by Maria Aro.  She does not so much lord over the family as allow the family to revolve around her.  Her daughter, the hot tempered Aili, played fiercely by Tuire Salenius, and her son Kai, played with lovable good cheer by Aimo Räsänen, make up the rest of this family’s extended nucleus.

Other relatives, who are not homeless, offer the audience a different view on the dynamics of family when it falls under economic stress.  Ismo and Elina, played by Samuli Muje and Suvi-Sini Peltola, are a young middle class couple living nearby.  Ismo allows his relatives to shower at their “cottage” even though his wife has found the practice increasingly annoying.  Kai’s sister, Jaana, played by Miia Selin, can no longer bear the eroding condition of her mother and grandmother.   With Christmas approaching, even in Greenhouse-effected Finland, the cold weather is rolling in with its ice and snow.

Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Several other unrelated characters also have crucial roles in this Christmas play interruptus.  Pentti Helin plays Hamed, an Iraqi immigrant who moved to Finland just before Iraq War I in 1991.  Not only does his relatively quiet character provide the play with an enormous amount of its grace under pressure, but when he does speak, his voice’s high timbre sounds eerily melodic.  Kai’s love interest is Tiina, a single mother played with strength by Janne Kallioniemi.  Some of the funniest moments in the play occur in the Bambi-like “twitterpation” that takes place as Kai’s love blooms.  And then there is Asko, the engineer-designer of the overpass now unemployed and destitute, played by Mika Honkanen.  He arrives ready to hang himself from a support beam but ends up singing of Jesus and love on earth.

Much of the action is accompanied by music and dance.  Choreographed by Timo Saari and conducted by Timo Saari, the Romanian Gypsies provide a wide range of musical accompaniment.  With Marianne Nurmi on Darbuka and Bells; Alla Juntunen on Kazoo, Racket, and Tamburine; Timo Saari on Guitar, Mandoline, and Spoons; Jari Leppänen on Accordian; Jaakko Väisänen on Bass Domra; Toni Harjajärvi on Shaker; Eeva Kontu on Piano; Esa Korja on Cello; and Lotta Laaksonen on Violin, they imbue the stage with a lively spirit during the scene changes as the large overpass begins to rotate on its turntable like a revolving earth.

The last play in a three-part trilogy, The Warmblooded offers audiences not so much a glimpse into the workings of a dysfunctional family or a sympathetic portrayal of a family during hard times, or even the last days of a much beloved grandmother as she struggles to maintain her dignity in a failing economy.  Rather, this play and production is more parable and folktale than “realistic drama.”  Its characters are not the psychological characters that populate much of American theatre, but the emblems of those millions upon millions of people who no longer live to fulfill their dreams, but who live to survive another day with dignity and compassion.

These characters, however, also reflect Finland’s much vaunted educational system.  Though unemployed, these people understand the economic system at a macro-level, and thus they understand why they are in the situation in which they now find themselves.  Thus, even though we can enjoy them as simple hard working people making do, it is the play’s larger theme that looms over the evening, as these characters are quite capable of articulating the causes of their plight.  A boom and bust economy is not a sustainable economy.  Rather, it is an economy which craters; and when it does so dramatically, as it did in 2007, it leaves monuments like overpasses to its wastefulness and short-sightedness.  In those craters and under those monuments, the working and middle classes gather for shelter, no longer willing to pay homage to the gods of progress that caused their demise.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

The Warmblooded has completed is run at the Kennedy Center.  For more on Nordic Cool 2013, running through March 17, click here.

About Robert Michael Oliver

An educator, playwright, theatre artist, and poet, Robert Michael Oliver has lived an eclectic life since moving to Washington 30 years ago after earning his MFA in Directing from Virginia Tech. Co-founder of DC’s Sanctuary Theatre, Michael served as its artistic director through the early 1990s. He then worked at The New School of Northern Virginia as High School Director and Director of its theatre program. Now, with both his children independent, young adults, and after earning his doctorate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland in 2005, he has recommitted himself to the arts. In 2010 he began the Sanctuary’s Performing Knowledge Project. Its one-man show, “Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance,” which Michael wrote and performed, premiered at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. A long time participant in Washington’s theatre scene, he was delighted to be the Editor, DC Metro area for the Maryland Theatre Guide for a few years.