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Opinion

What wants a man with a broken piano in an isolated woodbox of a home on the windswept Manitoba prairie in the 1930s?

The answer is at the clappering heart of Armin Wiebe's lusty romantic folk tale The Moonlight Sonata of Beethoven Blatz, which had its premiere staged before a full house at the Rachel Browne Theatre Thursday night.

For such a man as Obrum Kehler, a Mennonite farmer two years into a happy but childless marriage with his beloved Susch, it is a question of procreation. For the title character, an eccentric Russian immigrant composer tasked with repairing the Klavier, it is all about finding a new muse to spur his creation.

Sure we are not of too much else, as the mischievous Wiebe, the award-winning Winnipeg novelist, makes his successful playwriting debut with a deceptively simple plot complicated by his quirky characters reversing the order of the words they speak like so many Mennonite Yodas. Combine that with Obrum's knack for talking in metaphors, "he speaks double sometimes," and communication breakdowns there will be. Did Obrum hire Blatz to tune his piano or his wife?

On Brian Perchaluk's rustic one-room house, Wiebe assembles a sensible farmer who desperately wants to make his spouse happy, a feisty peasant woman who is worried she is the "unfruitful one" in their union and an artistic dreamer, still traumatized from losing the love of his life and his artistic spark in the Russian revolution. They all have deep desires and no conventional way of fulfilling them, but out on the fertile flatland they find a way despite the harsh conditions to get things done no matter how unorthodox.

As would be expected of a Mennonite comedy/drama, music plays a leading role and is one of the main attractions of Beethoven Blatz, which extols its healing and redemptive powers. Wiebe aims to remind his audience that there is more to life than pulling carrots out of the ground.

Calgary's Eric Nyland is a highly trained classical pianist who hits all the right notes as the loopy and exotic fish out of water Beethoven Blatz, overdressed in a white shirt, gray suit, vest and tie. He plays Beethoven with great gusto both at the keyboard and as this sensual explorer from the steppes. He is totally believable when Blatz says, "Music must rouse the flesh, music must erupt from the loins," punctuating his declaration with a pelvic thrust.

As Obrum, Tom Keenan plays a character who is likable but inscrutable. Is he a simple man with poison ivy, conned into buying a piano seemingly impractical for their uncultured lifestyle? Or is he a smitten schemer who believes that getting Susch and Beethoven on the same piano bench could produce something beautiful? An ever-smiling Keenan deftly keeps the patrons of Theatre Projects Manitoba guessing.

Tracy Penner brings an appealing earthy naiveté and sexual heat to her portrayal of Susch, while Daria Puttaert rounds out the cast in the less flashy role of the midwife Teen, the community scold who represents propriety and brings warnings of flapping tongues about Blatz's continued presence in the Kehler home.

Director Kim McCaw, a former artistic director at Prairie Theatre Exchange, achieves an unlikely clarity to the two-hour production, which is no easy feat given Wiebe's linguistic chicanery. The result is a Manitoba play with a sense of place that speaks our language and celebrates our cultural roots.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca