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Going forward and backward in "The Last Five Years"
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Bradley Greenwald and Norah Long star in "The Last Five Years" at the Loading Dock Theater in St. Paul. (Photo courtesy of Nautilus Theatre)
Twin Cities-based Nautilus Theatre presents a musical about a love story, with a unique twist. In The Last Five Years, one character tells the story from beginning to end, while the other starts on the day of the breakup and moves backward in time.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Last Five Years tells the story of Kathy and Jamie, two artists who fall in love, marry, and fall out of love. While Jamie is a successful author, Kathy is a struggling actress, and the differences in their places in life eventually tear them apart.

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Image Norah Long

It's not an unusual story, but the telling of it is. While Jamie's story moves forward from beginning to end, Kathy's retreats in time -- from the breakup back to the day they met. As a result, the beginning of The Last Five Years could easily be mistaken for the end. Nautilus Theatre artistic director Ben Krywosz says he believes musical theater is not about what happens on stage, but about how it happens.

"We don't enter the theater wondering if this couple is going to make it -- we know from the outset and the very first song that they didn't make it," says Krywosz. "The question then becomes, how did that come about? And how are these performers going to realize that story and tell us that story, in a way that becomes emotionally moving and spiritually transcending?"

Nautilus Theatre is usually known for "Rough Cuts," a monthly series that presents works in progress. Krywosz says it's an inexpensive way to get public feedback on new pieces before they're finished. But when Krywosz saw The Last Five Years staged in New York, he knew he wanted to do a full production.

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Image A Case of Bad Timing

It's the first finished show the theater company has produced in more than four years, and in order to make it happen the show's two actors, Bradley Greenwald and Norah Long, co-produced it.

"This is a difficult time for the arts," says Long. "We all wanted to do this piece. And one of the practical ways to manage actually getting that done was to buy into it and to say 'OK, if we want to make this happen, then we all have to invest in it.'"

The actors are taking a financial risk, but they think it's worth it. The Last Five Years is an incredibly challenging work. Each actor sings a series of dramatic monologues, alone on stage, to a character who isn't there. Bradley Greenwald says it's exhausting, but satisfying.

"One person singing to one other person, and that one other person happens to be the audience -- that's an incredible relationship to have as a performer," says Greenwald. "You can really let yourself wear your emotions on your sleeve."

In "The Schmoul Song," Bradley Greenwald's character Jamie tells Kathy a story to encourage her to live out her dreams. The story requires him to sing three different voices. Greenwald says he decided to whisper one voice and speak another, to keep enough energy in reserve for when he reaches the more emotionally expansive finish.

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Image Bradley Greenwald

"It sounds so dry and sterile. But sometimes you have to go through a piece like that technically, and figure out just the bare bones technique of it, in order to make it consistent night after night," says Greenwald.

The Last Five Years uses a simple set. Music director Mindy Eschedor plays piano to one side. Images of clocks and hands are printed onto translucent panels that hang from the ceiling. The floor of the stage is split in half by a chasm that separates the two actors. A single bench crosses the divide.

While the actors are separated for almost the entire performance, they do meet for a moment. It's in the middle of the show, when their timelines cross. It's the day Jamie proposes to Kathy. Actor Norah Long says the duet they sign at that point is her favorite song in the show.

"He starts that song by himself and then I join him. I walk on stage, and his back is to me, and I sit down in place and he turns around and looks at me. And every time he looks at me I start to cry -- because he's there! He's right in front of me for the first time, and it's just so great to be able to hold onto him and to sing with him and really let our voices go together," says Long.

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Image The set of "The Last Five Years"

The moment eventually passes, and Jamie moves on into the future while Kathy continues into the past, alone again. Artistic director Ben Krywosz says the strength of the show lies in its ability to balance out the negative emotions with the positive, while revealing the bittersweet fragility of human relationships.

"One of the most poignant moments is at the end, when Kathy, contemplating the start of this new relationship, says, 'I stand on a precipice, I struggle to keep my balance. I open myself ... I open myself one stitch at a time,'" says Krywosz. "And it feels to me like that's such a human statement, and filled with so much courage and optimism and hope that something will come out of whatever our efforts are to make connections."

The Last Five Years was written by Jason Robert Brown, and inspired by a true story. It is being staged at The Loading Dock Theater in St. Paul's Lowertown district, from March 4-March 21.

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