Out in the dark, the tires of a speeding car shriek grotesquely. Glass shatters, metal grinds. We hear cries and moans, popping glass. The lights come up. The car is balancing on its side onstage, headlights on. A head of curly red hair pops through the hole where a windshield should be. She moans again and smiles. "That was the best sex I ever had."
It's the opening shot of a movie called America, being filmed by the characters in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's newest play, Cinemamerica. Call it love, American-style: sex and violence, the oldest hook in the book. It's the perfect crash, a death so smooth, we don't even know if the two lovers are dead. In fact, the same car is "crashed" in Cinemamerica more than once. More than twice. The play is a cabaret of wrecks, with each chorus of collisions serving as its own metaphor: for America, youthful ambition, idealism, creativity, Jeune Lune itself.
This theater has grown from a roving tribe of broke, part-time expatriates to a bona fide institution over the past 18 years. These days, it may well be Minnesota's most admired theater on the national scene, a troupe renowned for its soaring sense of visual spectacle and narrative lyricism. "When people in New York talk about theater, they talk about Jeune Lune," says Chris Bayes (who was a company member for five years and then worked at the Guthrie for seven, and now directs in New York and teaches at the Juilliard School). "People say things like, 'Wow, you worked at Jeune Lune--I saw a show of theirs when I was 15 that was amazing.' People don't talk that way about the Guthrie or the Jungle."
But that's no life insurance policy, not in America in 1997. Theater is the riskiest of risky businesses, and doing risky shows is Jeune Lune's trademark. They've wrecked before, both on stage and in the ledger books. "There's been financial crisis points where you go so far into debt you'd better just cut your losses and bail out--keep from creating a gigantic disaster," says artistic associate Steve Epp. "There's been points where we felt like we were on the brink of that, and it never goes away. The numbers just get bigger. And the stakes are higher."
But then crashes are part of the Jeune Lune collective consciousness by now: The company was baptized on asphalt. On a summer night in 1979, at the start of their first tour, three members of the newborn troupe were violently rear-ended on the road from Paris to Chartres. Their old Citroën exploded from the windshield back: Bob Rosen watched sheets of glass cross before his eyes in slo-mo as he was tossed onto the highway, skidding on his butt and landing in some bushes. He looked down and found himself poised on one knee, as if proposing marriage. Fake fish, leather masks, papier-mâché cakes, and lace collars littered the highway.
Dominique Serrand (who directs Cinemamerica) was oblivious to the action, sitting safe in his truck up the road, but the memory seems to spook him the worst: "I got gas and waited and asked people, Did you see an accident? And they said, 'Yeah, it looked like there was nothing left of the car, there were fire trucks.' And I thought, They're dead." Serrand tells the story with an actor's timing, pausing here and there for effect. But the gravity in his eyes is no put-on. It was all over for him at that gas station, for a few hours. He's never forgotten that feeling.
Jeune Lune chose an intact Ford Tempo for a starring turn in this show--which seems to lack the grisly auto-charisma of, say, a crunched-up Miata. "We looked at some cars that were completely smashed in," says Serrand. "You'd find people's things in them--a Coke can, a glove. We thought it would be bad luck." This is a superstitious lot, but after a few box-office disappointments in the past two years and bitter run-ins with the press, the company's not running scared. In fact, they're more determined than ever to do exactly what they want, and to be loved for it--and financially supported too.
Says Epp, "Against all odds--and sometimes insanely--we choose to do things that are very difficult and huge and obscure." Impossible is another favorite word in connection with their new piece, the most ambitious work to date: two full-length plays on the improbably grand topic of America, collectively titled The Pursuit of Happiness and written from scratch by the entire company. "It's not business as usual anymore," says producing director Steve Richardson. "We want to excite people, we want to say, 'Pay attention to us again, this is what we're doing.' And really do it."
In practical terms, meeting these ambitions means ceaseless work--same as ever. The performers don't just rehearse the show; they also share business duties, both to reflect their philosophy that artists should control their own finances, and, less philosophically, because there isn't any money to hire more staff. The result is that these artists seem perpetually tired and can never get everything done. After over a year of exhausting conceptual work, Cinemamerica may still not be ready for opening night.