‘105 Proof’ at Illusion Theater: Gangs of rural Illinois

L-R: Amber Bjork, Nick Saxton, Allison Witham, Nick Wolf, Heather Bunch, and in the center, Emily Dussault. Photo by Lauren B Photography.BY ADAM M. SCHENCK

Originally performed as a Fringe Festival piece, “105 Proof, Or, The Killing of Mack ‘The Silencer’ Klein” is playwright and director Diogo Lopes’ song of family and business—the ur-themes of the gangster genre. Ever since “The Godfather” in 1972, the inherent conflict between family ties and commerce has provided much gristle to show the way we live now.
How we live now, but also then. “105 Proof” has its setting in Prohibition-era Illinois, where an aging amateur bootlegger (Eric Marinus, also our narrator) goes into business with his brash, ambitious grandson Jonathan (Nick Wolf). Black markets make for strange bedfellows, and Jonathan heeds the call from Chicago to leave his native Wyatt County.
Indeed, much changes in going from town to city. “105 Proof” is also a coming-of-age story, as Jonathan joins a ruthless Chicago gang working in organized crime. In addition to referencing the Godfather films, Lopes’ expanded Illusion performance integrates music in a manner similar to the cult film classic “Dead Man” (Neil Young composed that score). “105” utilizes musicians Dustin Tessier on guitar and Adam June on percussion.
It’s a classic American tale: Big city lights make the young person compromise his small-town values. In any event, I found the plot of this script entirely satisfying. Two plot twists heighten the tension.
As for stagecraft, the performers move in open space with no stage properties. To mimic a general store, a backyard shed, or a 1920s truck, the cast mimes inanimate objects like a game of Twister. As with puppetry, one gets used to it—a strong narrative invites suspension of disbelief.
Local actors Derek Lee Miller and Allison Witham perform double-duty portraying two characters each. Miller is best as an honest and haggard lawman while Witham shines as a Wizard of Oz-like gangster-behind-the-curtain. Emily Dussault is like a redheaded Barbara Stanwyck in her role as femme fatale. Heather Bunch, Nick Saxton, and Nick Wolf inhabit supporting roles.
We all love certain genres, and writer-director Diogo Lopes offers a master class on the gangster genre with “105 Proof.” Al Pacino was Michael Corleone, but recall that he was Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” too. Any good gangster story needs an anti-hero. To create a believable anti-hero is step one, but the gangster story move par excellence reveals itself when the audience roots for the villain.
You will have to see Lopes’ work to see for whom you cheer.
The play runs through Nov. 20. Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. The last performance is ASL night. The Illusion Theater is located at 528 Hennepin Ave., Mpls. 55403. Tickets at illusiontheater.org or 612-339-4944.

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