Dreams point out the obvious as much as the metaphorical, so the theatrical nightmare that invaded my sleep last night elucidated something fuzzy and haunting in my subconscious. In it, I remember racing on my bicycle through the streets of Minneapolis, going from theater to theater to catch a performance I was supposed to be attending. Except that, with each place I arrived, the rich and wildly diverging stylistic theatricality I discovered upon moving to the Twin Cities one year ago had been whitewashed by a kind of mediocre story-telling formalism. Grotesque, almost, in its banality. Identical productions of limp 4-character, Broadway-hit comedies and redundant mid-Century revivals that currently rule so much of the American regional theater circuit had found a safe haven all across our community. Worst of all were the audiences, who cackled and shrieked with each exponentially more tepid performance; haunting me with the heartbreaking sadness that they’d never come to know a work of true theatrical greatness.
Upon waking, the specter of my dream began to ebb away and, slowly, thoughts of my past year’s viewing began to wash across my mind: the poetic lyricism of Aditi Kapil’s Agnes Under The Big Top, the growl and grit of each of Anna Sundberg’s lightning-in-a-bottle performances, the holy marriage of Kevin Kling and Simone Perrin’s Scarecrow on Fire, and the kinetic precision of Suli Holum’s performance through Jeremy Wilhelm’s mindbending rabbit hole set for Deborah Stein’s Chimera. Each of these (and many more) reminding me of the vital theater community of which I now get to be part.
Later this morning, I flashed back to an image in last night's dream where my 9-year old son appeared with me at one of these performances, and afterwards looked up at me exclaiming, “Why do they have to make art so boring, Pop? It’s like they think I’m stupid.” Bristling at the thought that he and his friends would actually grow up believing this to be true, it quite viscerally drove home the conversation so many of us have been engaging in at conferences and coffee shops for the past decade: that the fear of audiences' discomfort, which has permeated the season planning of so many of our country’s theaters, is doing profound damage to our ability to cultivate new, adventurous and provocative playwrights and work.
It is precisely a community like ours here in Minnesota that can respond with such diversity of voice that we steer our audiences back into the Expectation of the Excellent. Not the Perfect. Not the Parochially Well-Made. But the Excellent Moment when an audience is shot through with the piercing clarity of a theater-maker’s intention, their desired effect, and the audience’s own unique, singular and very public flush-of-the-cheek.
Hours later, with the hangover of the dream still lingering, and searching for some sort of respite or re-invigoration, I am suddenly reminded of the production that inaugurated me into the kick-ass Twin Cities community of theatrical innovation last fall: Theatre Novi Most’s The Oldest Story In The World -- an ecstatic combo-platter of history-spanning storytelling, leaving me at the curtain call only able to grab onto the playwright I went with and howl: “I am never leaving this city!” As the first production I saw here, I have been forever spoiled in this deflowering by Lisa Channer, Kira Obolensky, Carl Flink, Adrian Jones and the rest of their Gilgameshian chain-gang. Its poetic athleticism, muscular physical approach and balls-to-the-wall, Kushnerian depth and weight had me completely unstuck in time for its entire 90 minutes.
Moment: Countering the American desire to emote our way through narrative storytelling, Erik Hoover and Billy Mullaney’s every sinewy fiber sparked with each other in the white-hot heat of their first meeting. From second to second, I couldn’t tell if I was watching Brokeback Mountain or the meeting of Adam and Eve. Utterly male, full of simian thrusts and lunges; suddenly something tiny and intimate and holy, suddenly fear propelling them away and then towards each other again. Each move seemed like they might fuse into one entity, right in front of all of us. Each gesture shot through with intention.
Moment: Amidst the haunting and stark text by Kira Obolensky (an epic writer and theater-maker) come interstitial—and yet never incidental—passages with British scholar George Smith (played by Stephen Pearce with such total and complete trust of the script that he delivered a performance of profound intimacy), the founder and translator of the original text. In a particular passage, after stripping himself bare, awash in the ecstasy of language, Pearce looks out at the audience, studying us as an almost-reflection of himself—hunting himself in a mimicry of the story’s heroes—looking to find himself in our eyes. I found myself disoriented by the shifting perspective of the journey—was I looking to him for the answers or was he looking to me?
Moment: the tantric coupling of Billy Mullaney and Vanessa Voskuil, set to the pulsing, pounding, erotic slither of Vinnie Oliveri’s sound design. I didn’t know whose work I was watching. Was it Channer’s, with its arms-wide embrace of history yet to come? Was it Flink’s relentless death-and-sex lens through which each performer’s tendons poured? Was it Vladimir Rovinsky’s biomechanic training of the entire ensemble that created moments where the cast all miraculously move and breathe as one organism, or watching Mullaney slowly, achingly slowly, snake and snort his way up Voskuil’s thigh, finding each and every place she breathed and pulsed?
I find it quite rare in theater where the language of a production is so fully consistent that I can’t assign moments to just one artist. Yet Obolensky's writing about the origins of Iraq and mythology for centuries to come sits effortlessly next to Flink’s dreaded scorpion battle. Barbara Berlovitz owned every cubic foot of the stage every time she, gracefully and elegantly portraying the Goddess of Creation, glided from upstage to down. And Jones’ maze of filing systems, TV screens and a trio of gown-clad 60’s a cappella singers all refract the light of history, beaming back and forth across the scenes.
So tonight, as I’m readying for sleep again, last night’s slumber finally feels a million miles away. My mind is racing with the notion that, even though our national field hasn’t quite found an equilibrium between the new and provocative vs. the “guaranteed hits,” I can rest more easily knowing I’ve found a community that’s a lot closer to achieving it than others. Though The Oldest Story in the World was my virgin experience in the Twin Cities and set the bar incredibly high for my theater-going expectations, the reverie of the experience hasn't been an isolated one.
Moment: Mu Performing Arts continuing to bend the Broadway musical, while in the same season producing two new plays. Moment: the fantastical world of Open Eye Figure Theater who seem to have an unending treasure chest of brilliant new stories being told in ways that constantly reinvent the form. Moment: the flinty spark catching fire with each new ensemble-created theatrical work by the gang at Sandbox Theatre. Moment, Moment, Moment: This week, we launch into the 40th anniversary season at the Playwrights’ Center with a brazen mix of playwrights of incredibly varied aesthetics; continuing the legacy of creating the next generation’s body of American theater work.
We can sustain work of such excellence here in the Twin Cities—with artists that continue to tear down the walls of how theater is created, and, in doing so, continue to be a beacon for reshaping the face and voice of theater in this country.