High Spirits

A 19th-century comedy and a few steins of swill make for a midwinter night's bender

Midway through a production of Georg Büchner's 19th-century comedy Leonce and Lena, Dan Nycklemoe, his face and nose painted a bright, drunken red, staggers off the stage toward the door. Clutching at his stomach, which padding has distended beneath his costume, he extols the beauty of the outside world. "Look at it," he cries out, "it's...it's... Oh my God--it's a bowling alley!"

At the preview performance I attended, patrons of the bowling alley greeted him with indecipherable catcalls, which Nycklemoe shrugged off, grinning. He staggered back to the stage, still roaring throatily, behaving as though this theater were his own personal fiefdom. And the theater might as well be, as Nycklemoe is the artistic director of the Bryant-Lake Bowl's cabaret space and has worked at the venue for half a decade. But tonight, in this oversize, ruddy costume, he was not Nycklemoe; he was Valerio, Büchner's clown.

Lords of the dance? Charle Rollings, Brian Sostek, Ben Kernan, and Ann Michels
Lords of the dance? Charle Rollings, Brian Sostek, Ben Kernan, and Ann Michels

Leonce and Lena was Georg Büchner's only comedy and, perhaps uncertain about the medium, the playwright cribbed heavily from Shakespeare, lifting the character of Valerio almost whole cloth from Falstaff. Valerio is the adviser to a wayward prince who, having run away in order to avoid an arranged marriage, accidentally falls in love with the very princess to whom he was betrothed, who has likewise fled. Valerio is every bit Falstaff's sodden philosopher, and Nycklemoe plays him big: He waves his arms, improvises asides to the audience, and pours wine for everyone onstage and demands they join him in a musical ode to liquor.

This melody, one of a handful composed by Nycklemoe for the production, is a great, rollicking drinking song, and the cast staggers about onstage while they sing it, dancing little jigs and throwing their arms around each other. Eventually Nycklemoe produces a slate with the lyrics to the song and demands that the audience join in. At the preview I saw, those in attendance included Balls cabaret host Leslie Ball, comedian Ari Hoptman, and Vincent Gracieux from the Theatre de la Jeune Lune--an impressive selection of Twin Cities theater professionals to show up for a small, experimental work. They strained to see the slate and then raised their voices, joining the song. I can now say authoritatively that only one of them has any business singing in public.

Leonce and Lena is all about drunkenness and bluster, with Valerio as its inspiration. (By comparison, the role of Prince Leonce is played by the entire male cast but for Nycklemoe. They switch off at random moments, doubling up on dialogue as one actor takes the stage and the other leaves it.) Yet this production is most intoxicated not with liquor but with its own sense of unshackled imagination. Director Ben Kernan, who also authored this adaptation, has an everything but the kitchen sink--what's that? You want the kitchen sink? Very well then, throw in the kitchen sinkapproach to mounting the play. To this end, he relies heavily on extended bits of comic stage business. Characters struggle to dress themselves while actors walk directly up to the edge of the stage, take one step farther, glance down, and then realize, like Wile E. Coyote, that they can walk no farther.

There is enough creativity onstage for a dozen productions, and enough talent, too. (Among others, the players include Charles Hubbell, Craig Michael, Ann Michels, and Erin Anderson, most acting out multiple roles.) The cast is nimble, and must be, because often the surfeit of inventiveness threatens to bury the show, and the performers must be fast on their feet to keep out from under it. As with most roaring bacchanals, it's probably more fun to participate in this than merely to sit as its witness. (Some in the audience might be tempted to take the cast members aside and hand them cards listing meeting dates and locations for 12-step groups). But, as Valerio argues throughout the play, there is nobility in such excess.

 
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