Last chance review: 'Handprints' at the History Theatre

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Greta Oglesby (right) and Dennis Spears portray multiple characters in "Handprints" at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
Photo by Rick Spaulding, courtesy of History Theater

Something very special has been taking place at the History Theatre in St. Paul for the last few weeks — and there’s still a chance to see it.

Handprints” is written and performed by preeminent Minnesota actress Greta Oglesby. It is based on her 2012 book “Mama ‘n ‘Nem, Handprints on My Life.”

The play explores lessons she learned from friends and family, including her complex relationship with her parents: a mother she describes as her best friend and a father who never said “I love you” while she was growing up.

“Handprints” sits at an interesting intersection of musical, song cycle and TED talk. It balances them in ways that doesn’t feel hokey; instead it is intimate and engaging, aided by Oglesby’s incredible singing voice (Twin Cities jazz pianist Sanford Moore accompanies Oglesby.)

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The show is part of a trend of performances that I call “one plus performer shows.” Ostensibly, these are showcases for one performer. However, this minimalist format is fleshed out through use of projections, music, multimedia and sometimes one or two additional performers. “Handprints” uses all of these elements — and even throws in puppets.

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Greta Oglesby wrote "Handprints," which is based off of her life experiences.
Photo by Rick Spaulding, courtesy of History Theatre.

In these shows, additional actors are there to support the storytelling of the main character; they do not have their own arc.

In “Handprints,” Oglesby is deftly supported by longtime Penumbra theater company member Dennis Spears. He portrays many characters, including Oglesby’s father, her husband and a grade school bully.

Spears especially shines as CeCe, an LGBTQ member of Oglesby’s family. Despite only playing CeCe in one scene, the weight and power Spears brings stays with you the remainder of the play.

Oglesby is the star, however, and her performance shows us why she has graced some of our nation’s greatest stages. She switches between characters of different ages and temperaments, and it is a masterclass in acting. Her moments of portraying her younger self are standouts, but there is one particular sequence towards the end of the play that has stuck with me.  

After finding a passion for performing in theater, Oglesby treats audiences to a theatrical montage of some of her greatest performances. These include a role in “Gem of the Ocean,” where playwright August Wilson praised her performance, and “Caroline, or Change” at the Guthrie Theater, which earned her accolades. These striking scenes provide a bittersweet look at how the industry works — and a reminder of Oglesby’s talents.

Toward the end of the play, Oglesby takes a moment to spend time at the grave of a loved one. While feeling the earth beneath her, she sings a sweet and slow song about how who she’s become as a result of the lessons she’s learned, calling her life a “Psalm” dedicated to those who have impacted her.

Oglesby looks to honor the important people in her life, but also impart that everyone has people who have touched them. We are shaped by those who have left handprints on our hearts, and in our lives.

“Handprints” runs until Feb. 18 at the History Theatre in St. Paul.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.