A ‘Fringe’ performance

Characters used masks as part of play by CSB/SJU professor, student

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August 12, 2015

By Mike Killeen

Adam Houghton (left) and George Dornbach '18 during a scene from the play "Pariah, or the Outcast" at the Ritz Theater Studio, Minneapolis. The masks they are wearing are symbolic of a theme from the play that the characters wear a mask of affability that covers something less desirable underneath.

Adam Houghton usually directs plays for students at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University.

But for a couple of weeks in July and August, Houghton joined SJU student George Dornbach on stage.

Houghton and Dornbach were in "Pariah, or the Outcast" at the Ritz Theater Studio, Minneapolis. The production was staged five times as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

The festival, which completed its 22nd year Aug. 9, is an annual 11-day performing arts festival featuring performances of shows in venues around Minneapolis. Anyone may apply to the festival, and all the shows were selected by lottery.

"Pariah" is a one-act play written by Swedish playwright August Strindberg during the winter of 1889, and reset by Houghton and Dornbach in contemporary California. The play involves a battle of brains between two men, "Mr. X" (Houghton) and "Mr. Y" (Dornbach), in a struggle for survival.

"I think the play is strange like many of Strindberg's plays, but that strangeness has value for modern audiences because it reflects how confusing life can be," said Houghton, an associate professor of theater at CSB/SJU. "Theater's power is in revealing truth, and this play reveals truth about confusing human relationships and conflicts."

In a sense, this play reunited Houghton and Dornbach.

"I first worked with George when I directed him in the spring 2015 theater department production of 'As You Like It.' George played Touchstone," Houghton said.

"Acting with Adam is a real pleasure and way too much fun," said Dornbach, a rising sophomore theater major at SJU. "Adam is my professor, director and adviser during the school year, but it's been so great to also get to know him more as an actor, collaborator, deviser, creator and good friend this summer. Not that Adam isn't those things all the time, but it has been wonderful and really special to work with him one on one.

"During the year in class and in the one production I acted in with Adam as the director, from the start you already knew he's a creative collaborator who loves and encourages input from the whole ensemble or class," Dornbach said. "There'd be moments where he, as an example or to clarify his explanation, acted a section or character briefly. Those moments were cast and class favorites because Adam is so talented at what he does."

Dornbach had committed to act in a different show in the Fringe Festival. When he and Houghton decided to work together, they actually had plans to do a different piece, but then ended up working on the Strindberg play.

"Adam and I sat down and rewrote the entire script, bouncing ideas off one another, and the end product is something I think we're both quite happy with and proud of," Dornbach said.

Both actors shared an interest in masked theater, and sought to incorporate that into the play. Houghton taught Dornbach the ways of mask making.

"Learning a new skill from Adam, observing his practice and having a lot of fun doing it - that was kind of how the whole process of making this play began," Dornbach said. "Before we had any substantial ideas about what play were doing, we had the idea of the masks and just started to roll with it.

"It's a beautiful thing to work, and work and fail, and keep working on the mask all the way through to its completion. To have something tangible at the end of it all is a process, but one definitely worth taking," Dornbach said.  

"The masks were worn at specific points in the play," Houghton said. "They are symbolic of a theme from the play that the characters wear 'a mask of affability that covers something less desirable underneath.' "

They received a favorable review in the Aug. 3 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper.

"Actors Adam Houghton and George Dornbach are rivetingly understated as the older Mr. X and the younger Mr. Y," wrote reviewer John Townsend. "They have ... retained the rhythms, confrontational dynamics and dripping disdainfulness of Sweden's controversial playwright. Though they never come to blows as they each try to blackmail one another for revealed past crimes, they utterly emanate the aura of psychic warfare."