J'amuse

The Ministry of Cultural Warfare issues a manifesto for revolutionary sketch comedy: If all art is political, stay away from lousy politics

At this past Saturday's performance of the Scrimshaw Brothers' Look Ma No Pants, a member of their company the Impossibles, Jill Bernard, passed out flyers for another sketch comedy troupe, the Ministry of Cultural Warfare, who currently have a show titled Like Water for Talent at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. "I had nothing to do with this show," she told the audience, "and I have never been more proud of work I didn't do."

Somebody has done an awful lot of work in preparation for this show, particularly when you consider that this is only the second production by the group, and that their last show wasn't sketch comedy at all, but instead a curious dramatic adaptation of several short stories by obscure Hungarian writer István Örkény titled The Last Cherry Pit. Nonetheless, the members of the Ministry of Cultural Warfare have created an elaborate Web site (www.mocw.org) that in addition to documenting their troupe with the usual array of cast bios and backstage photographs offers a 97-point manifesto that they claim to have nailed to the front doors of the Guthrie Theater. Here are a few of them:

 

From each according to his size, to each according to her truculence: The Ministry of Cultural Warfare's Matthew Kessen and Leigha Horton
From each according to his size, to each according to her truculence: The Ministry of Cultural Warfare's Matthew Kessen and Leigha Horton

4. If all art is political, stay away from lousy politics.

24. If a collective identity is so weak that every criticism and/or disapproval is denounced as the next Auschwitz, that collective identity's adherents need psychotherapy and a history lesson, not politics, nor the arts.

41. Let's all be celebrities, so we can resent it.

 

This politically feisty outfit peppers its Web pages with self-mocking references to its intellectual pretenses (first on a list of ingredients for creating a MoCW show: "Three cups of freakish knowledge of pop culture." Second ingredient: "Two heaping tablespoons of useless liberal arts education"), including a handy reference guide to the more obtuse of its comic references titled "J'amuse!" Occasionally, troupe members grow defensive: Matthew Foster, who authored the Örkény play and has contributed several sketches to the current production, writes of responses to his work: "Unfortunately, very few people understand what the hell I'm talking about when I write things like that. I want them to and, on some level, I think people should understand things like that."

That inclusive intention noted, the sketch comedy of MoCW, as demonstrated in Like Water for Talent, is more pompous than prodigious, intellectually speaking. Their sketches include parodies of playwrights Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and Tom Stoppard, as well as a poetical ode to Stephen Hawking. As far as plumbing cerebral depths goes, MoCW never surpasses that of a freshman-level survey course. It's comedy for people who watch too much PBS, and have mistaken the fact that they sat through the entire Bill Moyers series on Joseph Campbell for an expertise on the subject of mythology. Tellingly, Like Water for Talent's strongest sketch is a parody of PBS fundraisers in which gun-toting, black-masked revolutionaries demand contributions to the station, Lesbian Avengers staff the phone lines, and Red Green waits backstage, wrapped in duct tape, as a hostage.

To its credit, MoCW is often eager to mock its own pretensions, and Like Water for Talent is keenest when it deflates any sort of precocious intellectual tomfoolery. In this mode, the Steven Hawking poem, authored by Foster, is very funny. Performer Matthew Kessen takes the stage, a mountain of a man with long, kinky hair and a grim expression. As he indulges in a bloated introduction to his poem, he is met with cries of approval by another MoCW performer, Leigha Horton. Kessen flinches with each of her comments, scurrying backwards and eyeing her warily, despite the fact that he towers a seeming 18 inches over Horton. Eventually, Horton leaps up to stand alongside him, insisting that she be allowed to perform an interpretive dance as he recite his poem. "I don't know," Kessen intones, looking panicked. "How obscure are you? On a scale of one to ten, how obscure?"

"Pi," Horton shoots back, and Kessen nods, satisfied. The poem is awful, of course, read with beatnik phrasings, as Horton flops around onstage in an alarming series of motions intended to represent the movement of a wheelchair.

Horton, in particular, is a solid comic performer. Along with fellow MoCW member Reid Knuttila, Horton is a longtime member of the Velvet Elvises, an improv troupe that came out of the Brave New Institute and performs with some regularity at the Acadia Café and Cabaret. Her experience shows: She expertly delivers a monologue as a dim, melodramatic, easily flustered Southern belle, wearing what seems to be four sets of frilly undergarments. In this getup, she reels off hothouse-melodrama clichés about drinking mint juleps and then bemoans the uncertain fate of her lover, who lost his leg in the war (which war it was, she's not certain).

The MoCW is the first Twin Cities sketch comedy troupe I have seen to regularly tackle the comic monologue: Like Water for Talent offers three. Horton's is the most assured performance, but nowhere near as savage as the monologue by Knuttila (in drag) as a perplexed society matron. She comes out to complain of a recent garden party that was very nearly ruined when one of her guests spontaneously began to exhibit stigmata, bleeding from the hands and forehead while crying out eschatological prophesies. It's a tight, mean little monologue, and the troupe's Web page offers a link to an Internet-published history of stigmata for interested audience members who wish to do more research. Our comrades in the Ministry of Cultural Warfare have seen fit arm us with materiel to ruin a few garden parties of our own.

 
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