For a young theater company, it's all about the underdogs

H. Adam Harris, left, directs a scene.
Director H. Adam Harris, left, directs a scene from the upcoming production of "Luna Gale."
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Luna Gale, the title character in Underdog Theatre's new production, is a 3-month-old girl who's been brought to the hospital for severe dehydration.

When Caroline, a supervisor with the Department of Human Services, comes to talk to the teenage parents, she finds they're not doing so well, either.

Caroline: Luna's been sick for a while, hasn't she?

Karlie: Just since Monday.

Caroline: So four days.

Karlie: One.

Caroline: Today's Thursday.

Karlie: Today's Tuesday.

Caroline: Today's Thursday. How long have the two of you been smoking meth?

Brianna Patnode and Kory LaQuess Pullam rehearse a scene.
Brianna Patnode, left, playing the part of Karlie, and Kory LaQuess Pullam, right, playing her boyfriend Peter, rehearse a scene from "Luna Gale."
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

The play follows Caroline as she tries to figure out what's best for the child and the parents as they try to get their act together and their child back.

"It's a play that looks at the future of a child, and it's a play that also looks at systems — the systems we occupy," said H. Adam Harris, who directs the show. "How a Department of Human Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, can be so overworked and be so stressed."

The play, by Rebecca Gilman, deals with drug use, physical abuse and religion as it asks the audience what is the moral thing to do.

In one scene there's a two-way mirror; it's not by accident, Harris said, that the audience is placed on the other side of that mirror, looking in.

"What stories are you bearing witness to?" Harris asked. "What stories are you contributing to? And how are we really thinking about the children in the system in which we live?"

Korey LaQuess Pullam
Korey LaQuess Pullam plays the role of Peter in the upcoming production of "Luna Gale."
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Kory LaQuess Pullam, the artistic director of Underdog Theatre, plays Luna Gale's father, Peter. This is Underdog's third full production; its first two plays, both written by Pullam, earned high praise.

Pullam, 28, remembers opening the play "Baltimore is Burning" in 2016. Maybe a dozen people showed up to see it the first weekend.

"I was like, 'Whelp, this is a stupid idea, why did I start a theater company? This is hard!' But by closing weekend it was wall-to-wall, because the word was getting around about this work," he said.

While most theaters in town will choose one or two shows per season to address social issues like race or class, Pullam's company is all about what he affectionately calls "underdogs."

"We are specifically dedicated to lifting up new voices, voices of color, voices of the disabled, women, LGBTQ+ stories and communities and things like that," he said. "So I think that by leading with that mission, that is what separates us and that is what gives us that energy that people are looking for."

Veteran Twin Cities actress Jodi Kellogg plays Caroline, the case manager walking a moral tightrope.

James Rodriguez, Dario Tanglelson and Jodi Kellog rehearse a scene.
James Rodriguez, left, playing the role of Cliff, Dario Tanglelson, playing Paster Jay, and Jodi Kellogg, playing social worker Caroline, rehearse a scene.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Kellogg retired from full-time acting a couple of years ago and switched to a more financially lucrative career. She said she was happy to come out of retirement to play Caroline in "Luna Gale." She's worked with Pullam before.

"He is the future of theater, and not only just theater in America which many people consider to be white and elitist," she said. "It's very much theater in the moment for our society, for current thoughts and events and how to make the world a better place for everyone who has to live in it."

As a young theater artist in the first years of founding a new company, Pullam pays most expenses out of pocket. Next year, he plans to jump from one show per season to three. Half the time, he said, it's stressful and scary, "but that other 50 percent is absolute pure joy and happiness and just payoff."

Underdog Theatre's production of "Luna Gale" opens this weekend and runs through April 1 at The Southern Theater in Minneapolis.