Do-Me Thespianism

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

Rock opera, porn opera, plays that mention blue balls... How did two siblings from Rogers, Minnesota, go so horribly wrong? The youngest of eight kids, Jerungdu's founders--including brother Joey Donahue--were raised in a "good, Catholic, sexually repressed Christian family," according to Mo.

"As a teenager Michael wanted to be a rock star," she says. "I can remember that the very first song he wrote was 'God Are You Ugly Tonight.' I think there was just that kind of urge in both of us to break out of that boring rural lifestyle."

Looking at them now, I'm astounded to learn that Michael is 37 and Mo is 40. "Don't we look young?" Mo says. "I think if you maintain a really adolescent sense of humor, then you stay young."

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!

"Yeah," Michael laughs, "by being repugnant and juvenile until you're 80."

Though Joey Donahue isn't involved in The Surfcracker!, he has collaborated with his siblings since they were teens, when the trio used to sneak into the legendary Longhorn to see acts like Joan Jett and Iggy Pop.

"Our parents were completely exhausted with raising children when they got to us," Michael says. "So they would literally take four-to-six-week vacations in the middle of winter, and they would leave Mo in charge of us."

The slightly older Mo was a good teacher: She showed her brothers how to draw hand-stamps on their wrists to get through the Longhorn's doors and, that failing, how to sneak through the punk bar's kitchen.

To these kids, theater always seemed a natural companion to rock 'n' roll--particularly for Mo, who sharpened her teeth in the Rocky Horror school of acting, usually playing the drag queen, Frank-N-Furter, "because he was the star," she says. Michael and Joey played in two Zappa-inspired bands through the Eighties and Nineties--the Crashdummies, then Sesamoid--before founding Jerungdu in 1995 as a band only, taking their name, supposedly, from a New Guinea aboriginal word meaning "the essence of maleness." Even before rock opera entered the picture, theater had always figured prominently. Michael cites a Halloween gig at the Loring where everyone in the band dressed up as renowned Minnesota artist Scott Seekins. "He showed up," laughs Michael, "and here's four of him onstage doing a Kiss cover."

In 1998 the group joined the Kale People's Liberation Army section of the May Day Parade, jamming in clothes made of nothing but kale leaves, while Wavy Gravy hopped along for the ride. (The following year some Kale soldiers were ticketed for indecency.) Doing actual theater wasn't such a leap. "I kind of realized several years ago that I had limitations as a lead singer," Michael says. "And I view the frontperson for a rock band as the emotional conduit between the material and the audience. There's a limitation as to how well I can deliver a song. But if I had a dozen actors that have a lot of different things that they bring to the table, I think that's a far more compelling rock show."

Which doesn't completely explain the utter weirdness of the works that Jerungdu produced as a rock-theater entity. It's somewhat telling that Mahoney's Mirror and Barneezlebub were co-written by Surfcracker! cast member Chris Huff under a pseudonym. "My mother didn't need to know what I was doing," he laughs, explaining that she was active in local theater and has since passed away. Mahoney's Mirror, a collaboration with Bedlam Theater, posited that Nixon and Bill Cosby (or giant puppet likenesses thereof) might be twin evil rulers of opposing universes, both of which disappear into a giant asshole.

Barneezlebub dallied with much more taboo subjects. The play featured a scene called "good touch" where a hydra-headed incarnation of PBS's purple dinosaur sang to little children about the upside of molestation.

"We were making a commentary on Barney," Michael says. "That this is insidious television that is actually corrupting your children in the sense that it's encouraging this lame, feel-good attitude about life that isn't real."

"Sometimes we incite the audience," adds Mo. "That play was the most interactive in that way because we had strippers go out in the audience and lap-dance. And when I danced," she adds, laughing, "I got tipped!"

 

Certainly, the climactic Annette-Elvis consummation scene in The Surfcracker! will incite something. In rehearsal, the two actors run through a seductive kung fu fight--Annette flushed but still resistant, her pursuer frustrated but determined to take care of business. "Luckily, Elvis is a black belt in every conceivable martial art," he boasts. (Next Jerungdu production, scheduled for spring: AssAssIn! A Top Secret Kung Fu Musical.)

Finally, after a few Matrix moments, Annette relents: "Take me! Take me almost all the way there!"

As lines like that indicate, Jerungdu are something more than a dirty Dudley Riggs--more ambitious than just reliable comedy that takes off its drawers. Michael and Mo are on a mission to liberate sexuality from the sexes. To make us (gulp) better people. But the question remains: Wherefore?

"One theory is that in Catholicism, you're taught to be repressed," says Mo, when I ask about Jerungdu's preoccupation with bodily functions. "Sexuality is bad, your body is bad, masturbation is bad--and at the same time the Catholic Church is filled with very visceral, bloody, gory, naked-Jesus-on-the-cross kinds of pictures."

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