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Kokkola at Akvavit Theatre | Theater review

Finnish playwright Leea Klemola’s bleak, strange portrait of a small town gets a fascinating U.S. premiere.

Photograph: Sooz Main
Kokkola at Akvavit Theatre

It’s fitting that Leea Klemola’s affronting, truly jaw-dropping “arctic tragedy of darkly comic proportions” begins and ends with a discussion about humiliation. Over the production’s two and a half hours, its desperately unhappy characters spend an unflattering amount of time in their skivvies, screech and cry out family confessions, down enough vodka to kill the sea animals they turn into (don’t ask) and slap the living shit out of each other—and not in the theater-school-stage-combat sense. I saw handprints. Director Chad Eric Bergman’s Akvavit Theatre production easily marks one of the most unsettling, head-scratching, cringe-inducing shows I’ve seen in years.

God bless him for it.

Named after a Finnish town, Klemola’s 2004 play follows isolated, begrudgingly close-knit Nordic community members’ struggle to deal with each other and their own out-of-reach longings in a fatalistic, disinterested world. It’s challenging material, if partially overstuffed and at times totally mystifying, but it’s made more empathetic by Bergman’s game cast, led by Joshua Harris as an alcoholic bus driver set on preserving his extended family’s well-being whether they appreciate it or not. For all the piece’s bleary viciousness, set against an affecting, atmospheric set by Bergman and Sarah Nelson with lighting design by Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, the ensemble finds some compassion in the cold—which, as Klemola hints, is where it actually matters.