Staging a Revolution

Bedlam Theater finds a friend in controlled chaos; the Praxis Group mounts an eight-hour Hamletmachine

Bedlam Theater's current production feels as though it has sprung directly out of the ground of the University of Minnesota's West Bank: Its fiber is woven from a near-invisible network of connections that creates a singular community. For example, the characters in Freewheeling in the Attic of Whim chew on flat little pieces of nut-brown toast throughout the production, a bread that looks like the sort you would find accompanying rice and vegetables at the nearby Seward Café, where several of the Bedlam gang work. Huge puppets loom over the entrance to the theater: a snakelike skeleton, two swooping crows, a life-sized elephant. These papier-mâché creatures call to mind the puppets of the Heart of the Beast, while a two-man band could head a folk bill at the Cedar Cultural Centre. This duo stands on a small stage and picks among a dozen instruments to produce lazy, strolling ragtime riffs. Meanwhile, opposite them, Attic of Whim struggles not to fall right off the strangest set in Minneapolis.

The play's titular attic is about the size of a kitchenette and slanted at such an angle that furniture, props, and even the cast sometimes slide down it and drop several feet to the floor. The cast members have little punctures on their arms and legs from dealing with the set's jagged edges, but they romp about without regard for safety, playing three misfits stumbling through a few weird months in their lives. At the show's start, Julian McFaul, playing a lonely, blustering crank named Wolf, attempts to light his cigarette from a single candle dangling from the ceiling. He reaches for it, loses his balance, and then drags his castmate Maren Ward onto the stage to balance himself precipitously on her back. They seemed ready to lose their footing and to accidentally end the production on a tragic note, but just then the two-man band started playing a New Orleans marching-band rag and McFaul and Ward sprung into vaudeville poses, singing, "I'm told a sailor dies every time a cigarette is lit from a candle flame."

The script, by director John F. Bueche, is an eccentric, delightful affair, spooling itself out like the Chinese silk-reeling exercises of tai chi: flowing smoothly but always in unknown directions. Sometimes Bueche's text sounds like monologues assembled from the notebooks of Beat poet Gregory Corso (McFaul's dialogue could be pure Corso, while cast member Jon Cole, with his sardonic voice and puppy-dog eyes, actually resembles the poet). Sometimes the play looks like a live-action version of The Muppet Movie (including the band picking out the melody to "Rainbow Connection" at a key moment). At other times the production turns into an elaborate reconstruction of one of Jay Ward's "Fractured Fairytales" from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, as cast members don conical hats and declare themselves to be princesses and frogs.

Somehow it holds together. The cast doesn't simply seem to be inhabiting this odd universe; they appear to be generating it as they go along, with the set itself transmogrifying under their feet and drifting on casters toward the audience. It is no longer an attic; now it is a pirate ship, and McFaul and Ward battle atop it, slashing at each other with five-foot-long swords. During opening weekend, the audience was wholly won over by this anarchic spectacle, save for a middle-aged, bearded man grasping a guitar and pressing a battered straw hat onto his head, who excused himself halfway through with the explanation "The acid is kicking in." Acid, my ass: Freewheeling in the Attic of Whim was kicking in.

At the end of the production, which closed, following its own logic, with a show-stopping song-and-dance number (in which the three cast members somehow managed to represent an entire chorus line), writer-director Bueche stepped forward from the back of the performance space, where he had sat in with the band to play a few songs on guitar. In the best tradition of West Bank radicalism, where the co-ops would occasionally turn their cash registers around and rely on their customers to ring themselves up, Bueche asked the audience to pay what they thought the show was worth. One attendee from the tattooed, dreadlocked crowd paid with five zines he had printed, which seemed fair. I, however, was left in a quandary, as I know how much a theater like Bedlam is worth--but I don't have anywhere near that sort of money.

 

Heiner Müller's incomprehensible text for Hamletmachine is only about five pages long. So when the Praxis Group declared that their production of his script would clock in at eight hours, a single question demanded to be answered: How?

Inventive staging is part of the answer, and under the direction of agitprop veteran John Troyer Hamletmachine orchestrates some of the most ingenious movement to grace Twin Cities stages in the last season. His cast of five move through the long performance space at Gus Lucky's Gallery as though they were characters in a short film by Dieter from Saturday Night Live's "Sprockets," droning dialogue such as "You'll be too late, my friend, for your paycheck" as others drone, "blah blah blah blah" into microphones. At one point, with an umbrella, a wheelchair, and some goggles, the cast assembles into a fascinating human sculpture, wheeling slowly toward the audience as the umbrella opens and closes like a mechanical lung. The play consists of five somewhat short scenes, and after they have played out Troyer simply begins them again, out of sequence. Audience members are handed punch cards as they enter, and they may punch in and out as they please over the eight-hour period. Most seemed to punch out and not return--which is perfectly appropriate for this sort of theater. If the avant-garde doesn't drive away a noticeable percentage of its audience, the artists are not doing their job.

 
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