Is it possible the amount of theater in the Twin Cities has finally outstripped the audience available to watch it? Wendy Knox of the Frank Theatre has been offering up dire warnings for a while now, predicting that the growing number of small independent theatrical productions, all competing for the same dwindling audience and limited theater space, would eventually lead to some sort of crash. The past six weeks have seen, by my count, an average of five new openings each weekend, and many of them have played to near empty houses. The crash?
Case in point: The Directors Theater production of Down the Road and Tone Clusters at the Acadia Cabaret has frequently seen fewer people sitting in the audience than sipping coffee in the accompanying café, to the degree that artistic director Zach Curtis recently cancelled a show due to lack of interest. Some of the empty seats can be explained by the fact that the Directors Theater is a new company. This is only the troupe's second production, and it always takes a while to build a dedicated audience.
But then, the Directors Theater is new in name only. Zach Curtis, for example, is an old hand at Twin Cities theater, appearing regularly as a performer at the Illusion Theater and with Ten Thousand Things, as well as running both his own long-standing company (Fifty Foot Penguin) and his own improvised comedy troupe (Off the Top Improv). Similarly, the show's director, Sarah Gioia, is no stranger to the local theater scene: As a producer, she is responsible for such popular acts as comedian/storyteller Ari Hoptman and "postmodern" juggler Jay Gilligan. Her additional credits are expansive and impressive, including stints with the Guthrie Theater's literary department and the Brave New Workshop.
Neither is the material a hard sell. Both are lurid, tightly scripted one-acts about serial murderers, the first by Lee Blessing, the second by Joyce Carol Oates. These are familiar playwrights with solid reputations, and Blessing has connections to the Twin Cities. Finally, this production is the last hurrah of well-liked local performers Stan Peal and Laura Depta, who will be moving to North Carolina next month. Peal and Depta, husband and wife in life, play married couples in both of the Acadia's one-acts, and I have never seen them better. Both are short with broad bodies and harried faces, and in these plays they look positively haunted.
In Blessing's Down the Road, they play a couple assigned to interview a mass murderer (Steve Sweere, adding to a growing résumé of charming psychopaths). Their story has brought them to a homely motel room near an interstate, bordered by fast-food establishments, the maximum-security prison where they will interview their subject, and little else. As the prisoner regales them with endless dispassionate stories about knifing and raping young women, their mood quickly sours. Both performers bring to the role a sunken-eyed exhaustion and a sharp, bickering voice. The play itself is humorless and overlong, ending abruptly without any real resolution (indeed, it feels like the first half of a full-length play that Blessing never got around to writing). Worse still, Blessing sometimes writes like an armchair psychoanalyst, fussing over his characters' psyches and offering explanations for their behavior that a first-year psychology student would find trite. Fortunately, even Blessing's serial killer seems annoyed by this habit, keeping it in check with a few barked commands: I have no motive. I'm no good with "why" questions. Ask me "how" questions.
Joyce Carol Oates's Tone Clusters, meanwhile, is magnificent. Both less grim and more startling than Blessing's piece, the one-act brings back Peal and Depta, who here seem effortlessly middle-aged. The couple, badly dressed in frumpy, unsightly clothes and revealing haggard, bewildered facial expressions, play the parents of a young man accused of brutally murdering a neighboring girl and then hiding her corpse in their basement. The couple, addled by medication, offer a halting, uncertain defense of their son on television as an unseen, mellifluous voice (Sweere again) leads them through an on-air interview with a serene manner and a habit of asking preposterous questions. In response, the couple stammers out bland suburban epigrams ("Our son would never do something like that. He's a good boy"), which, when they are asked to re-tape part of the show, they attempt to offer up verbatim, searching their memories for their exact words.
It's a bravura piece of writing, and Peal and Depta provide appropriately artful performances. Frail and pathetic, their middle-aged married couple is both inadvertently droll and utterly heartbroken. It's a fine, fitting exit from the Twin Cities theater community for Peal and Depta, even if nobody sees the show but their friends.
After five years of building an audience in the Twin Cities, one of the few shows that has demonstrated a robust box-office draw these past few weeks has been Idiot Box's revue show at Bryant-Lake Bowl. For this latest production, the company, which is largely devoted to parodies of the farce that is TV, has culled its best routines from the past half-decade--they're staging live reruns, if you will. And, if I may borrow a phrase from J.D. Salinger, they have never been more testicular. Their closing act, in fact, is a wildly phallocentric retelling of the story of creation, with the troupe prancing about onstage in decorative codpieces. I am not usually one for hyperbole, but here it seems appropriate: I laughed so hard my corneas became disconnected from my eyes, requiring hours of painful corrective surgery. (Let's get those hospital-bill donations rolling in...)
In the past, Idiot Box has often seemed best with videotaped material (their commercial for a Citizen's Band psychic is a highlight of this show, featuring a burly trucker pouring salt over dozens of flapjacks and eggs while testifying, "He said my cholesterol was too high. Now, how did he know that?"). But this production demonstrates an equal confidence with live comedy, such as a sketch in which the amiable, rotund Scott Jorgenson develops a habit of talking to his co-workers as if they were dogs. "Do you want to get me a cup of coffee?" he asks castmate Heidi Fellner, who nods and scampers in place from excitement. "Wait for it," he tells her, and then pauses while her face contorts with anticipation. "Now GO, GIRL!" he cries out, and Fellner scurries out the door with a delighted yelp. If only audiences could be trained so well.