Gross Indecency

The Jungle heaves, Frank Theatre shudders, Outward Spiral recoils

As anyone who watches The Jerry Springer Show knows, there is immense pleasure to be had in the bizarre and aberrant behavior of others. As Springer habitués also know, however, schadenfreude has its limits; what at first seems purely entertaining can quickly become obnoxious, repulsive, and downright depressing. Meg Grundy's Tossin' Junk, which is now playing at the Jungle Theater, has a similar perverse appeal and, sadly, suffers from similar excess.

The situation is this: Joan (Randy Latimer), a morbid, muumuu-wearing shut-in, hasn't set foot outside her apartment in nearly a decade. Her squalid domicile, as imagined by director and set designer Bain Boehlke, is cluttered with ancient appliances, overflowing ashtrays, and the full farrago of filth and misery that a half-demented agoraphobe might collect in a decade of wretchedness. Joan's only human contact comes with Janis (Jodi Thelen), a ratty tramp who haunts the building's stairwell and runs occasional errands for its occupants, and Lavinia (Mez van Oppen), a cancer-stricken old dame who spends much of her time on the toilet. The women communicate via a bucket strung on a rope between their respective apartment windows, passing cigarettes, candy, and frequent complaints about terminal dyspepsia.

A quiet farm crisis: Frank Theatre's Farmyard  brings out the beast in its miserable characters
A quiet farm crisis: Frank Theatre's Farmyard brings out the beast in its miserable characters

For an uncomfortable first half-hour, Tossin' Junk is principally concerned with the bodily dysfunctions of its characters and the resultant excretions. Janis slithers in and out of Joan's flat, hacking and sputtering like she has a small rodent lodged in her larynx. Lavinia, for her part, crouches in a bathroom that is all too visible to the audience and grunts as though she's trying to pass the same animal through her kidneys. When a plot finally does emerge, it is a welcome relief--now, at least, Joan and friends will have to get off the pot for a few minutes. Lavinia's rakish son Leonard (Stephen D'Ambrose) gets the idea that Joan is holding a fortune in Sears stock and decides that the best way to get a piece of the action is to get a piece of her. Although Leonard enters flossing his teeth, it is readily apparent that he is no Crest Kid. Slathered in grease and wearing a permanent smirk that suggests equal parts stupidity and malevolence, he comes across like a pimping Fonz .

These are no happy days, though. As Leonard plots to romance Joan out of her money, his mother circles the drain of the infinite. Lavinia seems to go to pieces before our eyes: Her hair thins, her eyes sink deep into their sockets, and her body becomes a bony mess wrapped in a dressing gown. Like all of her fellow cast members, van Oppen does a remarkable job of infusing a fragile humanity into a character who would, in lesser hands, be nothing more than a vaguely repugnant shadow. Unfortunately, also like her fellow cast members, van Oppen has nothing to do but wallow through a script that goes nowhere very slowly.

Although Tossin' Junk is billed as a comedy, it is reasonable to imagine that it began as a drama. Indeed, there is very little humor in the play, and the scant comic relief provided by Thelen as the scheming vagabond is obscured by leaden pacing. Consequently, the attempts at black humor, including a sublimely unfunny scene in which Joan smokes a joint and blisses out to the Bee Gees, play like desperate gimmicks. Trying for both humor and pathos and producing neither, Tossin' Junk merely grinds along toward its unearned catharsis: Junk is tossed, disaster averted. Nevertheless, we leave the theater wishing that the Jungle had had the foresight to sell Lysol, latex gloves, and breath mints during the intermission.

 

Where Tossin' Junk errs on the side of excess, Frank Theatre's tenth anniversary revival of Franz X. Kroetz's Farmyard succeeds through fixed, almost clinical, detachment from its subject. Indeed, in the capable hands of Frank director Wendy Knox, lives of quiet desperation have never seemed so quiet or so desperate.

The setting is, as the title suggests, a ramshackle farm in a dusky wasteland--Germany in this case, but it could be almost anywhere. It's the sort of place where the wind blows through gaping cracks in the wall and where a framed picture of Jesus casts an ironic sneer over the doomed inhabitants. Here, an itinerant farm hand named Sepp (Tom Sherohman) dreams of decadent indolence in "the city" while sneaking off to masturbate silently in an outhouse. Sepp takes under his wing his employer's dull-witted adolescent daughter Beppi (Lisa Belfiori), an awkward, silent girl who squints out at the world from behind thick glasses. He tells Beppi stories and, for a time, the budding relationship between the lost souls seems full of hope. Then he methodically rapes her.

In keeping with Kroetz's glacially paced dialogue, Knox lets the horror build slowly. We sense that something is very wrong here, but we are no more able to articulate it than the characters onstage are able to prevent it. In the climactic scene, Sepp sneaks Beppi into a carnival replete with flashing lights and torturously slow music. After stripping off the girl's stained underwear, Sepp forces his sweating mass down upon her. Lying helpless beneath him, Beppi goes limp as a rag doll. It's as frightening as theater gets and aptly reflects Kroetz's nihilistic vision: Language is dead, and all that remains is silence and darkness.

 

Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day, now being produced by Outward Spiral, also takes place in Germany. This is the Fatherland we're all familiar with: Goose-stepping goons and speechifying dissidents are the order of the day. In a posh apartment raked at such a ridiculous angle that the inhabitants seem about to roll off into the laps of the audience, a group of artists has gathered to celebrate New Year's Eve, 1932. Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there.

The sofa revolutionaries whom Kushner parades across the stage include Agnes (Ellen Apel), a whiny refusenik; Paulinkal (Carolyn Pool), a prettier, whinier refusenik; Baz (Jeff Nelson), a gay refusenik; Gotchling (Laura Depta), a butch, communist refusenik; and Husz (Zach Curtis), a one-eyed, Hungarian refusenik. Thrown into the mix are Die Alte (Anita O'Sullivan), Lucifer (Mark Abel Garcia), and a frazzled modern woman named Zillah (Kate Eifrig), who bursts into the theater shouting "fire," then rants for a few minutes about the multifarious conspiracies of the moral majority.

Although Kushner's epic Angels in America may well stand as one of the great dramatic works of the century, Bright Room, which the playwright wrote in 1985, would probably best be filed away where impressionable young theater companies can't get their hands on it. There is indeed so much wrong with the play that it hardly seems worth the effort of sorting it all out. Aside from interminable stretches where the entire cast stands like lifeless figurants while one character makes a long, unfocused speech, there is an irritating amount of pretentious bumper-sticker moralizing. Who but Tony Kushner would have the gall to compare the American realpolitik to the Third Reich? After an hour of storming around the stage, one of the characters stops for a moment and says wistfully, "Art is never enough." Yes, and neither is righteous indignation.

 

Tossin' Junk runs through June 20 at the Jungle Theater; (612) 822-7063.Farmyard runs through May 23 at the Theatre Garage; (612) 724-3760.A Bright Room Called Day runs through May 22 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts; (612) 504-2323.

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