There aren't a lot of musicals about organized labor, but this weekend Frank Theatre presents one of the most iconic: "The Cradle Will Rock." The show at the Gremlin Theater in St. Paul rounds out Frank's 30th season in a way that's emblematic of the company's approach — friendly, but in your face.
"The Cradle Will Rock" is a 1937 musical that portrays a blistering world full of business corruption and political shenanigans. The shady Mr. Mister manipulates people to support policies that will line his pockets, including what could be a very lucrative war.
This is the second time Frank has done this show. Molly Sue McDonald plays Mrs. Mister, as she did in the first production in 2003 just before the Iraq War.
"And it was very timely, and people were scared, and people were concerned about the country," she said.
Sixteen years later the concerns have changed, but the play is just as valid, McDonald said.
Artistic director Wendy Knox watched the action from a table in Frank's rehearsal space, often asking individual actors among the 17 on stage about what they were doing.
"Shall we do it again?" she asked after running the scene. The actors enthusiastically agreed. Knox is famously collaborative, but very much in charge.
"The actors will ridicule me when they describe my directing process as pretty much saying, 'What's up with that? What's up with that?'" she said.
She does ask that. A lot.
"I am legitimately interested in what their response to the text is, or the scene, or whatever it is," she said.
But Knox then uses those answers to mold the show. She wants shows to make audiences think.
"When we started the theater, the impetus was: Sitting in a theater for two hours, if you come out and the first thing you say is, 'Where shall we go eat?' someone didn't do their job," she said.
"We are typically grouped with smaller theaters when anybody's talking about Minneapolis theater, but that small size is sort of counteracted by our incredible production history," Knox said. "We have done over 70 shows."
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And that's despite not having a theater to call home. For much of Frank's three-decade history, Knox has been the company's single staffer.
Pioneer Press drama critic Dominic Papatola said the Frank Theatre story is remarkable.
"If you had a set of tick boxes of what would make a successful theater, Frank would tick exactly none of them," he said.
He credited Frank's success to Knox's skill as a collaborator and director, and to the way Frank developed a core audience that likes to be challenged and will follow Frank to wherever it's playing.
He also noted Knox's reputation for working with a broad range of actors and allowing them to break out of the roles they usually play in other theaters.
Actor Molly Sue McDonald agreed. She never got to play villains before coming to Frank. She values being in a Frank show.
"And it may mean I will miss doing a show that's going to run for three months," she said. "But I would rather come and do a piece like this because it means something and has an effect on people."
Fellow company member Maria Asp agreed. She's lost count, but believes she's been in at least 20 Frank shows. She was also in the first "Cradle Will Rock" production. She said that because they are doing it the Frank way, analyzing the text with this group of performers — it's a new show.
"We all have different life experiences, and the play still has relevance, but it means something completely different," she said.
But what of the future? Looking back on 30 years of productions, Wendy Knox admitted that every theater company has a shelf life.
"And I keep kind of monitoring that, and I will check in with people," she said. "And I don't think Frank is done yet. It's great to feel that there is still stuff to be said."
Which means many more actors will face the question: What's up with that?