Starship Troupers

With its sci-fi epic 'Terminus,' the anarchic Bedlam Theater builds the mothership of all puppets

Lem's fiction is of a sort that aficionados sometimes attempt to have re-categorized as speculative fiction--the term science fiction being associated with Flash Gordon-style space operas and the like. Whatever you call it, though, the appeal of Lem's stories to Bedlam is obvious, beginning with the poetic haunting of the titular robot of Terminus, who carries the final, desperate words of a dying spaceship crew in his memory banks, tapping them out occasionally in Morse code. Bedlam is a literary group, often turning to intellectually profound writers as a source of inspiration. But you might not realize that from the resulting plays, which are frequently acts of utter theatrical...well, bedlam.

For an example, let us look to Bedlam's "Romps," semi-monthly cabarets/rent parties that might well be thought of as the "anti-Balls." Leslie Ball's Southern Theater-based cabaret, set just a few blocks from the Bedlam space, is relentlessly sober and supportive, and the Bedlam Romps are anything but. Shadow puppeteer Karen Haselmann describes her own experiences at the Romps as a puppeteer's version of Amateur Night at the Apollo, with audience members hooting at unprepared performers and, in one instance, firing a Nerf gun at them.

"One man actually crossed to me to tell me how much he liked my act," she says, "and then paused when he was speaking, picked up a Nerf machine gun, and BUDABUDABOOM."

The return of Robby the Robot? 'Terminus' director Julian McFaul with his mechanical buddy
David Kern
The return of Robby the Robot? 'Terminus' director Julian McFaul with his mechanical buddy

"Oh, that," Bueche says over beers at Palmer's. He explains that there is a game called Assassin, in which strangers are given each other's photographs and assigned to kill each other with the Nerf guns. "It's better if there are more people involved," he says, "so that you don't know the people you're hunting. For a few months, a lot of Bedlam people were playing Assassin."

Bueche, in his pigtails and spectacles, seems perfectly suited to Palmer's, a West Bank institution that is home to one of the most eclectic clienteles in Minneapolis: burly bikers, bearded indigents, sour-smelling punks, and sundry other misfits and eccentrics including a sizable contingent of college radicals, many from Macalester. That college may be the only institution remaining in Minnesota that regularly churns out an assortment of commies and other avowed leftists. I remember sitting in Palmer's a decade ago with several Macalester students who were self-declared Stalinists and who seemed delighted by their own ignorance of what that meant. "I don't know about 15 million dead in Soviet gulags," they would cry out. "All I know is that without Stalin the working class will never get justice in this world!"

The Bedlam crew is made up of Macalester lefties, although of a mellower stripe. They identify the theater company as a "collective," its original structure inspired by that of the Seward Café, where many of the original members were employed, and which survives as a remnant of a once-thriving attempt to restructure local businesses along democratic lines. But Bedlam is not like other collectives, which make a great show of their political affiliations, often beginning by penning elongated tracts explaining their particular viewpoints, including jeremiads against such universally despised social evils as racism, sexism, ageism, looksism, et cetera.

Instead, the laudable and vaguely lefty politics of Bedlam is more part of the deep structure of the company. It's visible in the company's habit of lending out its space to local political groups for fundraising efforts. It's visible in the troupe's democratic and near-anarchic creative processes. (While worrying over the complex technical cues needed for Terminus--a responsibility shared by the whole cast and crew--McFaul could be heard to mutter, "I must be out of my mind to do this without a stage manager.") And it shows in Bedlam's frequent policy of having "pay what you think it's worth" shows.

And then there's their selection of material. Lem, for example, lived and worked in communist-era Poland. In fact, fellow science-fiction author and longtime friend Philip K. Dick, during one of his most paranoid phases, penned a letter to the FBI turning Lem in for his politics. Dick did not seem to care that Lem would be of very little interest to a domestic investigative organization.

Terminus, however, is anything but a work of Soviet propaganda, dealing instead with a subject that left-leaning authors seem to deal with best of all: What becomes of our humanity in an increasingly industrialized world? Bedlam Theater has amplified that question, in its own daffy way, by making the characters of this play all too human.

"This is such a ship of fools," McFaul says, speaking of the various characters in their adaptation (played by longtime Bedlam vets and collective members, including Jon Mac Cole, Maren Ward, Mike Harris, and Sarah Garner), who alternate between giddy high jinks and utter madness during the course of the show. "It will be interesting to see how that plays," McFaul adds.

It is a comment of a sort that he makes repeatedly at this stage in the rehearsal. When the show is finished, doors will slide open on their own and film and video will emerge from hidden sources. Additionally, McFaul wants there to be a palpable thrumming during the ship's takeoff, and he's not certain how that will come about: Perhaps he will place subwoofers under the set, somewhere, or perhaps he will hang wires across the ceiling of the basement below him, that can be plucked in such a way that the whole room reverberates. "Of course," he admits, "who knows if any of this will get done. There are a lot of plans now that we may have to scrap, because we open in a week. I am more nervous about this play than any show I have ever done," he adds, "bar none."

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