Land of Make Believe

Ten Thousand Things follows a madwoman; Theatre Unbound rides a subway to fabulousness

Although The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol begins in an almost bare performing area, a half-dozen empty boots scattered on the floor propose the same sort of question as that raised by a painted still life. There is a hint of the lives that abandoned these lonely objects, and our imagination rushes to fill in the empty spaces--on the stage or on the canvas. This is Ten Thousand Things' essential approach to theater: A few objects, a few spoken words, a dramatic gesture, and the audience's imagination does the remainder of the work.

Before the start of the first act, Lucie Cabrol director Michelle Hensley briefly introduced the play, which tells of a dwarfish French peasant woman whose eccentric life takes her through both world wars. After her prefatory comments, Hensley hurried away to peek out at the production from behind a large concrete pillar as actors replaced her in the playing area, stepping directly into the empty boots. The play was originally adapted from a John Berger story by the London-based Theatre de Complicité, who were responsible for the critically acclaimed The Street of Crocodiles that visited the Twin Cities two years ago. It is Theatre de Complicité's script that Ten Thousand Things uses, a spare frame of dialogue upon which the English company could hang their famed, visually dazzling stage antics.

Ten Thousand Things also seeks to dazzle--but with unpainted wooden props that sometimes seem like leftovers from a high school shop class, they must rely on fast-paced, energetic performances and staging to do so. Performing at prisons and homeless shelters, the company excels at using the props and sets provided by the imagination, relying on their audiences--whose lives might also be defined by their lack of props and sets--to fill in the blanks. During their performances, the company sometimes must compete with their audience for attention; excited catcalls are common ("Lucie don't play!"), and occasionally a stagehand must cautiously step around a prisoner who is lugging a basket of laundry from one end of the performance space to another. Partway through the production I saw (at the Hennepin County Women's Correctional Facility in Plymouth), one of the prisoners began shaking and moaning gently; she was having a seizure. The other prisoners swiftly moved chairs out of her way and whisked her into another room with a brisk efficiency that would make any stage manager seethe with jealousy.

Despite this (or, in all likelihood, because of it), Ten Thousand Things' Lucie Cabrol is a triumph. Certainly it helps that the eponymous Cabrol is a fascinating character. Eccentric and foul-mouthed (she greets a stranger with a cheery "The passerby should always raise his hat to the one who is shitting!"), she spends much of the play demanding love and respect that she will never get in life. Bullied and cast out by her brothers, rejected by the man she hopes to marry, Cabrol has a life filled with thwarted desires. Played by Jodi Kellogg with a pinched mouth that hardly moves as it shifts--at the oddest moments--from a scowl to a wicked grin, Cabrol is a great, tragic madwoman. I don't know if the female prisoners in Plymouth felt any affinity for Kellogg's performance, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did--there were moments when I wanted to call out, "My God, that's my life you're telling up there!"

Certainly Ten Thousand Things' ambitious plays, with their steadfast refusal to condescend to the audience, are memorable. Kellogg related after the production that she is occasionally recognized from her Ten Thousand Things performances. In one instance a man approached her on the street and reminded her of a play he had seen while in prison. "Oh," she answered excitedly. "We'll be back there soon."

"Maybe you will," he answered, "but I won't."

 

Opening a play with earnest folk music is enough to drive any snob worth her salt out of a theater, especially when the scene is acted by black-clad, bespectacled young folkies singing, "Years have passed since we joined our hearts and hands as one." Broken Peaces director Amy Rydberg also includes dance numbers in her production, all of them looking like the bizarre routines that used to pop up at the Academy Awards. One suspects that Rydberg and Theatre Unbound have included these elements as a sort of theatrical exorcism. Much like a vampire who's been splashed with holy water, a cynic would respond to the unendurably well-intentioned songs and dances by fleeing the theater and screaming, "It burns the skin, it burns the skin!"

Such an exorcism may not be necessary, as the cynically minded are not likely to get past the labored pun that is the play's title. Those who survive the songs and dances will discover that local playwright Jeannine Coulombe has written a handful of first-rate monologues. Set on a bustling subway car, Coulombe's characters step forward and, framed by a spotlight, tell their stories directly to the audience. As hackneyed a dramatic device as this may be, the narratives themselves are compelling. Coulombe has a particular interest in the tales that new immigrants bring to this country, and several of her characters' accounts of political violence in their native lands are harrowing.

Eventually Windale Bafford takes the stage as a drag queen, in a performance that might have the cynics creeping back into the theater, nursing their wounds but drawn by the irresistible sounds of Bafford singing, "What wouldn't I do for love--or money?" This is also a dance number, but Bafford flails his limbs as though attempting to communicate the song's lyrics via semaphore. When performed as a drag act, the play's awkward elements become inspired. Clunky choreography and earnest folk singing are the straw from which drag queens spin...well, if not gold then shiny PVC, which is glamorous enough for my tastes.

Snobbishness and cynicism be damned. After all, what is theater if not the earnest, well-intentioned illusion of fabulousness?

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