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.

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

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!

"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."

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."

"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."

"Also, since we have a relatively small audience, it's like we've got to be outrageous," Michael adds. "Because it's not like we have anything to lose. And so being as outrageous as possible is the only thing we can do to really make a name for ourselves."

"Well I don't know if it's the only thing that we can do," laughs Mo. "But it's the most fun thing that we can do.

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