The Wrath of Khan

Jeune Lune turns Marco Polo into a carnival sideshow; Frank Theatre's tyrannical Arturo Ui is meaner than a Mongol horde

What a surprising weekend for Kublai Khan: For a fellow who died in 1294, he sure gets around. First Khan appeared in the Theatre de la Jeune Lune's The Description of the World (played, in this instance, by Luvurne Seifert). Later, the grandson of Genghis Khan also had time to stop by Channel 45's improv-based sketch show Comedy Hotel as a character in an improvised musical, played by the Brave New Workshop's Jim Robinson.

In light of this month's flood of news from Afghanistan, it is tempting to think that our collective minds have simply started to turn reflexively to thoughts of warriors from the East. But I suspect that's reading too much into it. Everything at this moment seems to refer back to current events, even when it shouldn't. As an example, a recent cover headline from the Weekly World News seemed almost unspeakably poignant to me, recalling the thousands of hand-printed fliers in search of missing loved ones that paper the streets of Manhattan. The headline in question? Help Us Find Bat Boy.

He's blind and 747 years old, but he's hotter than Tiresias: Jeune Lune's Marco Polo in The Description of the World
He's blind and 747 years old, but he's hotter than Tiresias: Jeune Lune's Marco Polo in The Description of the World

Knowing that my interpretive skills are so compromised, I will not attempt to break down the significance of Kublai Khan's triumphant turn on the Twin Cities stage--except to say that for someone who is primarily known for centralizing taxes throughout the Mongol Empire, he has a talent for stealing whatever show he happens to appear in. Jim Robinson's headband-wearing, cruel-countenanced Khan, for example, could create rain from his fierce temper, which, in this instance, was stirred by a hangnail. Luvurne Seifert's Khan, in the meanwhile, travels with a full retinue of servants trailing mutely behind him. Wherever the khan sits, they crowd around, shading him, fanning him, whistling bird calls, and splashing water from a mug to sound like a babbling brook, creating an extemporaneous oasis. The Jeune Lune's The Description of the World is a play filled with good jokes, but many of the best come from the khan's retinue. They tend to him, unnoticed by the ruler, cracking open coconuts on their heads to feed him, fanning fires in huge bowls, and using a comb on the end of a long stick to silently tame the ruler's cowlick-prone hair.

The story is based on the writings of Marco Polo, and, as these may all have been pure invention on Polo's part, the play itself is similarly created out of nothing. The set itself is almost nonexistent but for a towering, decrepit building at the back of the stage--a representation of Marco Polo's childhood house in Venice, the one true thing we know from his life. Polo is played by Robert Rosen, who also directed this production and, with Seifert, co-wrote it. When we first meet him he is 747 years old, his hair long and white, his face pale, wrinkled, and bedecked with blind-mice sunglasses. He is the subject of a traveling sideshow, held hostage in a wooden cart by a carnival barker (Seifert again, tossing off afterthoughts about Polo's travels into a microphone with a Tom Waits growl).

As Polo begins to describe his adventures, the cast simply invents the scenes onstage with the sort of ingenious theatrical sleight-of-hand we have come to expect from the Jeune Lune. White sheets become camels, wooden pillars become gondolas, and lies become truth--for a moment at least. In the end, the play offers up what amounts to a carnival barker's promise, a combination of freakishness and fraudulence. It's a feat of inhuman invention, an example of the excessive ingenuity of the troupe, but risks being so to the point of escapism. After all, what more did Polo offer aside from entertaining, distracting fictions? This production provides the same, and little else, but it must be said that there is something essentially forgivable about being lied to in an imaginative way.

 

While I am refraining from reading parallels with current events into The Description of the World, it is impossible for me to do so with the Frank Theatre's production of Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, because, in the production's sole directorial gaffe, director Wendy Knox has made that connection explicit. Between scenes from the play, cast members step forward and offer sentence-long explanations as to how Brecht's script paralleled the story of Hitler's rise to power in Germany, followed by additional sentence-long explanations as to how this parallels current political misbehavior, from George W. Bush's questionable ballot results to the World Trade Organization's country-hopping attempts to duck public protest.

When I have my political theater served up to me, I prefer it without such CliffsNotes supercommentary: Brecht makes his points well enough on his own, thank you. The German playwright, writing at the time of Hitler, charts the course of a petty Chicago gangster who ruthlessly exploits a frail and corrupt cauliflower syndicate in order to rise to power. Hitler's own methodology is there, if you want it, but the assassinations and blackmail that put Ui into power are methods shared by every petty tyrant. Ui could stand for all of them. As played by Frank Theatre cofounder Bernadette Sullivan, she is all of them. She struts and swaggers with a universal cockiness at the play's beginning--the posture of a young brawler or street tough--but settles into the archetypal, monstrous aloofness of the ruthlessly powerful toward the end, calling to mind Stalin's and Mussolini's stolid posturing. Put a bandanna around her forehead and she could even be Kublai Khan with her retinue gathered round. But in this instance, Tommy guns at the ready, the dictator's understudies have not come to build an oasis for her. When Ui opens her mouth and lies to us at this point, her pretty platitudes are not entertaining. They are terrifying.

 
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