The piece, like much of Hughes's work, uses sleight of hand as a way to tap into the metaphysical. "Some people theorize that the performance of magic came out of tribal shamans," Hughes claims. "In their teaching they'd do illusions and mess with reality to express a point. They were using illusion as a metaphor for the unspeakable things we can't talk about, [that] we don't have the vocabulary for: God, love, death. The magic does not exist in the magic but in the attempt to speak of something we all know, and can never know, in same breath."
For Hughes, the Bryant-Lake Bowl is just one stop on the road to New York. But Allen, who grew up there, says New York "would chew me up and spit me out--eat me alive." He's quite happy to stay here for the rest of his life; he's already bought a plot next to his grandmother at Lakewood Cemetery.
It's been hell just gathering the nerve to step onstage, and Allen might not have done it if his friends hadn't coerced him. Before his first monologue at Red Eye, "a voice in my head said, 'You're a gay man who lived through San Francisco in the 1980s. And now you're gonna do, what--10 minutes at 14th and Nicollet? How bad could this be?' ... I'm getting older. If you don't do it now, when are you gonna do it, dear? Are we going to wait until we're finally checked into the nursing home and start doing a little stand-up there? Sometimes I remind myself, honey, you're performing in a bowling alley. But this is all gifts. It's further than I ever thought I'd get."
Though a few of the performers may take themselves quite seriously, Seal sees Bryant-Lake Bowl as a remedy for the kind of church-like reverence demanded by stages across the city: A favorite quote on the BLB's promotional literature, attributed to Bertolt Brecht, states, "A theater with no beer is just a museum." And yet the Bryant-Lake Bowl has some fairly substantial problems, including "The Pole," which blocks sightlines, and the "Exit" sign onstage. During a recent performance of Craig Johnson's wonderful Diary of Samuel Pepys, the staff was unbelievably loud, talking and leaving the window into the bar open, while bowlers whooped and sirens whined outside. Table service in the theater is way understaffed, the floor is creaky, and a couple of the uniformly gorgeous waitstaff have attitudes big enough to power their own one-woman shows.
Yet the BLB, like Patrick's Cabaret, Balls, and the Two Chairs Telling series at the Jungle, gives performers the chance to work their material with live audiences for no overhead. In the current arts economy, that's a precious opportunity. In the interests of fair-warning, though, it ought to be noted that a substantial amount of this material can be nearly unwatchable.
Says Seal: "Our goal is to train people to produce themselves. They're not sitting around their apartment, going to auditions, waiting for someone to wave a magic wand and say, 'You can be a spear-carrier in our production of this show you don't really want to do.' My favorite thing is when somebody comes up to me and says, 'You know, I've got this idea for a show I want to do.' And I say, 'You can do it here.'"
The Bryant-Lake Bowl's program of 17 one-person shows continues through the end of November; call 825-8949.