The Kennedy Center's nearly unprecedented Nordic Cool festival, a celebration of the arts in Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland, offers DC arts lovers a sampling of the best performances those countries have to offer. If the acclaimed Tampere Workers' Theatre production of The Warmblooded is any indication of the level of creative talent in Finland, I must make a trip there to sample more of it. Featuring a strong ensemble of passionate actors, engaged musicians, and a story that transcends national boundaries, it's ultimately a powerful and engaging theatrical experience.
Presented in Finnish with English surtitles, writer-director Sirkku Peltola's heartwarming story considers the impact of an economic downturn on the Kotala family, once proud farm owners who are forced to take up residence under a not-quite-finished overpass among drunks and nomads. A wonderful study of poverty, family ties, and perseverance amidst difficult circumstances, it is a beautiful depiction of humanity - warts and all. There's the matriarch, Gram, (Maria Aro), her daughter Aili (Tuire Salenius), and her grandson Kai (Aimo Räsänen) who have befriended an Iraqi immigrant, Hamed (Pentti Helin), who is also on an 'eternal camping experience' even as the Finnish winter rages on. Several of the Kotala's relatives have avoided these difficult circumstances - Ismo (Samuli Muje) and his beautiful wife Elina (Suvi-Sini Peltola) - or at least, in the case of Kai's angry sister Jaana (Miia Selin), found a way out of them. Some of them continue to maintain relations with their now homeless family - either to keep the peace within the family or out of love - while others actively find a way to lash out at them for their situation. On one cold Christmas Eve night all of the reluctant family members reunite to celebrate the season only it does not turn out how Gram and the others planned. Sparks fly and lessons are learned. Family dynamics are forever altered.
Often, I get nervous when a writer chooses to direct his or her own play. It can either be inspiring - because the writer is so passionate and intimately familiar with the material - or a mess because the writer does not have other eyes on the work to offer insight and alternative ways to present it. Luckily, Sirkku Peltola is up to the challenge and I am happy to report that this production is most certainly not a mess. In fact, it's far from it. This well-paced production is seamless, heartfelt, and powerful.
While all of the actors rise to the occasion, Aro is particularly heart-breaking yet hopeful as Gram and offers one of most nuanced performances I've seen in a while. If a production is presented in a foreign language with which the audience is not familiar, it's easy to feel a bit detached, but Aro's acting transcends any linguistic boundary.
Other standouts include Helin and Räsänen. Although their characters are dealing with vastly different pasts, they share a common current situation. Bringing warmth and humor to both of their roles they have a raw passion and an ability to connect naturally with other cast members that make them exciting to watch.
Additionally, Selin's impassioned take on the complex Jaana is one of the most intriguing in the show. Although she has less stage time than some of the others, she's the most successful at sharing the journey her character is on. Her final scene with Aro (who is equally as impressive) is alone worth the price of admission.
The production is enhanced by an extraordinarily realistic and detailed set (Hannu Lindholm), costumes which depict the gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' (Marjaana Mutanen), and of, all things, music. Exquisitely performed by a cast of singers, musicians, and dancers - some doubling as gypsies living under the bridge - the musical selections are eclectic to say the least. They range from classical tunes, to Christmas music, to (of all things) pop music. Celine Dion is even heard belting out "My Heart Will Go On" at one point. At first listen, the audience might question why all of this is needed. Oddly enough, all these elements work together to emphasize the spirit of the outdoor dwellers who live each day to the fullest. Coming together from various cultural backgrounds, their 'residence' is a melting pot of sorts and the diverse sounds highlight this quite well. The fact that they share songs also reflects the bonds they now share.
This production deserves to be seen and I can only hope that the Tampere Workers' Theatre will return to DC and, perhaps present the first two plays in the trilogy about the Kotala family. The company's presence here certainly enriches our already diverse theatre scene.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission.