Do-Me Thespianism

Can a rock band-cum-theater company turn its audience into enlightened perverts?

If nothing else, Jerungdu sure know how to leave you with an unwelcome image. Like the devil sodomizing Jesse Ventura. Or a drag-queen zombie singing, "I Fall to Pieces" as her limbs break off like icicles. Or a naked female corpse jerking to life in a tub full of bloody bath water. These and other gifts to the psyche came recently via the rock band-cum-theater company's "Haunted Whore House," an adults-only tour staged in somebody's south Minneapolis flat over Halloween weekend. With the kids safely home developing cavities, vampires in lingerie snapped at patrons' necks before fake policemen shoved everyone out the back door--no "hands off" policy here. Yet it all felt like a boiled-eggs-as-eyeballs childhood flashback--maybe because all the performers exhibited that giddy will to freak you out.

A month later, the red-haired hostess of the whorehouse, company director Mo Donahue, is just as engaged in her role as a director playing a director of a movie within a dream within a play. At the center of this metaphysical pastry are Elvis Presley and Annette Funicello in a beach flick with a gang of surfer thugs called the Rat Finks. It's all just another day in the dream-life of Jerungdu, the first off-script run-through of their latest production, The Surfcracker! A Surf Adaptation of the Nutcracker, which opens Friday, December 8 at the Loring Playhouse.

Can you identify Annette Funicello and Elvis in this photo? Kari Ann Shiff (far right), Barry Cole (second from right) and cast in Jerungdu's farfetched beach musical The Surfcracker!
Daniel Corrigan
Can you identify Annette Funicello and Elvis in this photo? Kari Ann Shiff (far right), Barry Cole (second from right) and cast in Jerungdu's farfetched beach musical The Surfcracker!

"You're still stoned here," Donahue reminds one actor, stepping out of character to direct svelte blonde Jon Maggs.

"What's my motivation again?" he jokes.

Grinning mischievously into the wall mirror of the rehearsal studio, Maggs ducks between Annette's legs before sprawling out on the hardwood to fire off his lines. He's playing Surf Dude as a flamboyant queen, though the character represents Elvis's romantic competition for Annette. Filling the Mouseketeer role is Kari Ann Shiff, a waifish beauty who won a Sun Country Airlines-sponsored smiling contest earlier this year. Dubbed "a good little whore" by her director in Frank Theatre's Threepenny Opera, the intensely focused Shiff has strong pipes--thankfully, she's no Annette--and her keen easily competes with that other major component of the troupe: the band. These stubbly blokes in jeans and wool sweaters look like disheveled groundskeepers. But keyboardist Montana Scheff, drummer Mike Olszewski, and guitarist Daryl Yanke gracefully meld Tchaikovsky and Dick Dale, working under the loose guidance of Mo's bespectacled younger brother Michael, who wore the Ventura mask at the whorehouse.

Loose is the key word here. Having staged only two other such rock musicals--Mahoney's Mirror: A Sci-Fi Musical Comedy Adventure, and Barneezlebub: A Hillbilly Porn Opera--the Donahues don't exactly have a hard and fast formula for...whatever it is they're trying to do. "Twenty heads are better than one," Mo declares, opening the process to the group's collective dementia. This loose approach would seem to fit loose mores. Put another way, Jerungdu embody slackness in both the Richard Linklater and Yellowman sense: They're easy. And just to add to the confusion tonight, sexual or other, Mo reads lines for two absent actors--male and female.

At least you can see the convoluted story coming together behind that intense stare of hers. Far as anyone can tell, Rob Eichinger's wry plot goes something like this: Girl falls asleep with Elvis doll and dreams she's Annette in an Elvis beach movie. Having killed "Mr. Disney" with "blue balls," she falls in reluctant lust with the big E: "I even like that he's a little dumb," she declares. "I don't know what I ever saw in that beta-male Surf Dude." Then she flirts with lesbianism, and Elvis's insecurities mount: He demands more and more "improvements" to the script. ("How do we get a goat on a surfboard?" asks an extra, adding with a blank tone that "Elvis is one weird son of a bitch.") All of which allows ponytailed actor Barry Cole to make his Elvis a broader caricature of the prototypically shameless, dick-swinging male--like Robert Smigel's Clinton on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

Perhaps only Dr. Jerungdu, as the band proper has taken to calling itself, have their parts nailed down at this point: They play themselves. Albeit with British accents. At the denouement, they even get their own slide-projected outro: "The rock 'n' roll band Jerungdu would eventually enjoy a brief period of success in the music business as a novelty act with their cult hit, 'Heavy Medley of Christmas Classics.'" (The medley will be available on a forthcoming cast CD.) All else is happy chaos: cues, blocking, the dance numbers choreographed by Heather Brady. And Mo's emphatic calls for quiet fall on ears not used to taking orders--including those of her pigtailed 11-year-old daughter Ariel, who plays Lisa Marie Presley.

Watching the action from the floor, Ariel glances over, sees my pen, and starts grilling me loudly. "Are you supposed to be here? Did you sneak in?"

"I'm not supposed to be here," I deadpan, "but don't blow my cover, okay?"

She stares me down with a look that says, "I'm going to tell." But suddenly she hops to her feet to join the band. It's time to sing gleefully along with Uncle Mike's "Heavy Medley."

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