The Rolling Rock was unusually piss-like on opening night: a worrisome example of life tasting like art. The beer came free during the intermission to Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, a play whose script calls for an actor to "take out his pecker" and urinate onstage. In this production, actor David Schulner turned his back and leaked from some under-the-shirt contraption (though later, the script would require him to wander the stage ass-naked, which proved harder to fake). Curse is "a hilarious and heartbreaking tale about family, the American dream... and sheep," according to its program notes. The 1976 play--which does, in fact, star a live lamb--is also brilliant, poetic, almost archetypal--and tailor-made for Hidden Theatre. That is, as much as anything can be tailored to a troupe of overtalented genre sluts like these. Explains artistic co-director Brian Baumgartner, "We're not a theater that [defines] ourselves in terms of type or style or form, but in the questions a particular text has to ask. In that way we can justify doing Italian farce and Canadian urban drama, and then American classics like Shepard and Of Mice and Men."
Unfortunately, the Hidden Theatre's name may be too fitting: Few people know who they are, much less what they're about. "It's hard for people to 'get in,'" Baumgartner admits. "They don't always know what they're expecting." Certainly, other small-budget theaters around town have taken similar risks in material--Frank Theatre, Mary Worth, 15 Head, and Eye of the Storm come to mind--but few consistently produce full seasons, much less maintain a core artistic group as large as Hidden Theatre's (seven at last count). I haven't been crazy about their choice of material lately (Dario Fo's didactic Accidental Death of an Anarchist and Judith Thompson's sensationalistic The Crackwalker); in both cases I thought the actors outshined their material.
Which is a backward way of saying that these are exceptionally fine performers. And from the sound of things, they don't bother much with regrets. "It sounds kind of hokey and like bullshit," says Baumgartner, "but I think that everything we've done has made us grow." Company member Shane Sooter goes farther: "Most companies begin by taking risks, and go on taking the same risks. We've never done anything we've felt safe doing--anything where we said, 'We know we can do this.' We want to be afraid of every show we do. We can't live without the fear."
All the company members trained at Southern Methodist University's Theatre Training Division, and migrated from Dallas to the Twin Cities between 1993 and 1995, attracted by the propitious theatrical climate. "Looking back, I'm not sure we were right," says co-founder Jay Dysart about the scene they joined. "There is a pretty close-knit group of theaters that have been around a while. You hear stories about 10 years ago..." Baumgartner jumps in: "They had these meetings of all the artistic directors [in town], and there was some sort of porcelain cat or dog, or something even more interesting than that. They would all sit around a table at somebody's house-and the rule was, whatever was discussed while that was on the table couldn't [leave the room]." Among today's glut of busy and underfunded theater upstarts, such a support network has been slow to surface. "A lot of the other [companies] don't really care to deal with us," Dysart says, while crediting Theatre de la Jeune Lune, who have helped with everything from rehearsal and storage space to advice on writing press releases and making budgets.
The company's acclaimed acting has once again served them well in Curse of the Starving Class, briskly directed by Brian Baumgartner. For an audience, it's a wonderful play: full of humor, beautiful language, puzzling characters, and layer after layer of symbolism. For actors, though, such rich (and inscrutable) characters present a singular test. Annelise Christ is excellent as the mother, Ella, delicately exposing this woman's elaborate systems of denial and her middle-aged exhaustion. Schulner has the trickiest job as Wesley, the son who's trying to keep his parents' feet on the ground. I don't really understand this character; unfortunately, I wasn't convinced Schulner did, either--I could often feel him acting. Schulner seemed most relaxed when interacting with Jana Groda, who plays his sister, Emma. Groda takes a brashly physical stab as this whipsmart, androgynous kid (though whether this adult actor can pass for a kid is another question). As Weston, the father, Baumgartner proves beyond a doubt that he's incapable of giving an off line reading. He's loud and large, which gives him an immediate edge in stage presence, but he's also got access to a mine of emotional subtleties. Baumgartner, it seems, can do no wrong.
The company itself, however, has stumbled through some demoralizing experiences on stage: empty houses, walkouts... in a word, flops. "In the middle of our second season we did a show called Gasp," Baumgartner recalls. "Nobody saw it. It was a horrible time in all of our lives. We put it on for nothing and when it was over, ended up with less than nothing." The company has bounced back from that disappointment; the only remaining quandary is how to pack a house. "We want to find a patronage that doesn't expect a certain thing," Shane Sooter says. "We're curious if there's a group of people out there that would be satisfied not knowing what to expect."
Curse of the Starving Class runs through June 29 at the Minneapolis Theater Garage; call 377-2616.