Declaration of Independence

Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Pursuit of Happiness is a trip to the dark side of the moon.

Yet rehearsals, like dinner parties, have distinct personalities, and this particular day is a sunny one. Luverne Seifert, a big guy with a broad face prone to goofy grins, is practicing the play's weirdest role and baldest inside joke: Ginny Starr, reporter "at large," a transvestite who has her own TV show where she performs "installations." Meanwhile, Serrand jiggles his feet incessantly, while everyone else smokes and looks around the room. As he is famous for doing, Serrand has been spending a disproportionate--perhaps even counterproductive--amount of time rehearsing one section.

Seifert turns the flame on high, half lisping, strutting across the stage and seething, During the L.A. riots I slashed my forehead with a ballpoint pen, went screaming the Lord's Prayer through the streets of South Central... I stalked a young man running with a 27-inch television set, I tackled him, threw him to the ground, and made him fuck me right in front of a Korean furniture store on Valencia Avenue...

Chuckles, sighs, the sounds of bodies shifting in chairs. This "fuck me" business is gonna be an issue. And Seifert's still not giving Serrand what he wants. "You're much stronger when you're not moving," he says. "Just get planted and tell your story." Seifert begins again, this time sticking to the middle of the floor. It's better. But it's damn near impossible to get anybody to laugh; this is not an easy room, and asses are not kissed here.

Daniel Corrigan

Serrand stops Seifert and actor Steve Epp every few lines, usually mid-sentence, throwing out succinct directions they instantly absorb. Most of the time. Serrand, who's been in Minnesota about 20 years, is a master of English--he speaks of "succulent" moments and the like--and he's good for poetic brevity, what I come to think of as "Dominique's little koans":

"The movement has to be ludicrous before it becomes extraordinary." "As you create physical distance from him, don't play it distanced. There's no easier way to be close to someone than when you're far away." "It's not like you've forgotten. It's like you're trying to remember something you've never known." At times, he achieves spontaneous haiku. In other moments, he leaves the cast members scratching their heads until some bold soul pipes up: "So... what are we supposed to do?"

One has to wonder how many people in the audience will ever catch these subtleties. This time, though, subtlety ain't the point:

"More cruel," he urges Seifert. "Even more cruel."

Poison Pens

"Cruel" is a telling word choice. Jeune Lune has been scorched by reviews in the recent past, and they're not about to forget it. Company member Joel Spence maintains Ginny Starr is not intended as a dig at the press. "It's more about the helplessness you feel around her," he says. "No matter what you do, your life is out of control."

I buy the argument until I see the costume: a fuchsia miniskirt and midriff-baring top--which shows off Seifert's rotund belly--and a dark brown bob wig with straight bangs. It's a look that's strikingly similar to that once donned by a certain big-boned theater critic, Jayne Blanchard of the Pioneer Press, who was probably the harshest they've ever known. Coincidence? I ask the costume designer. "Not entirely," she demurs.

Last year's Three Musketeers also contained an indictment of critics, but that was an eloquent soliloquy, delivered by Epp. Ginny's different. She's mean, scabrous, ridiculous. Blanchard wrote some of her funniest stuff while stabbing Jeune Lune: Perhaps her most famous quip--one recounted occasionally at the theater--was to call the farce Honeymoon China "a death camp with curtain calls." Peter Vaughan of the Star Tribune was barely kinder, and the experience rattled the company to the core. Their reaction was a vote of noncooperation that looked both unprofessional and defensive: They informed Vaughan and Blanchard that they were not welcome anymore, and would neither receive tickets nor photographs for publication. (Coincidentally, both critics have since left their posts.)

But Jeune Lune is hardly alone in their dissatisfaction with local critics. Artists unanimously complain of the shift toward the sound bite, the two-thumbs-up mode of reviewing in which judgment of how "good" a show is overwhelms in-depth analysis. It's a salient point: Theater and film are no longer critiqued as art in daily papers; they're judged as entertainment. And Serrand is correct in his charge that precious few critics know much of anything about theater.

Thespians here and on both coasts voice the same opinion over and over: Jeune Lune is taken for granted in Minnesota. They point to the very phenomenon that helped the troupe so much at the start: the Minnesotan "inferiority complex" and attendant weakness for out-of-towners. ("You can never underestimate the power of an accent in this town," says one former Jeune Luner.) "Look at the whole slavish freakout over the Broadway shows coming through that are artistically questionable at best," argues Steve Richardson. "The Guthrie's getting a huge bump because they have an Irish artistic director. And good for them. It's all cyclical. When the orchestra got a new conductor, it was the same thing."

That sounds like sour grapes, and, even more, dangerously like self-pity. Jeune Lune, it seems, hate to be poorly reviewed--but even more, they feel Blanchard and Vaughan did not merely dislike their work, but did not understand, or want to understand it. "There has been no support for doing the kind of work we're doing," says Epp. "In fact, the opposite: [We've had] the feeling there were people who just wanted to squelch it, just stamp it out."

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