Starship Troupers

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

The Bedlam Theater has built the biggest puppet in the whole damn world. Oh, how I hate to modify that sentence, but perhaps I should, as the world is filled with all sorts of enormous puppets. Even as we speak, the Kiwanis Club in Sante Fe, New Mexico, is preparing to burn a 50-foot-tall puppet/effigy of Zozobra, otherwise known as "Old Man Gloom," at the annual Fiestas de Santa Fe. In fact, many in the rough collective of bedraggled theater professionals that make up Bedlam have tried their own hand at building enormous puppets.

For example, Mark Safford, a pleasant fellow with a crooked grin and wiry hair, built an infant head out of PVC tubes and coaxial cable this past year. The infant head appeared at the finale of the most recent Bare Bones Halloween Extravaganza, which told of a baby appearing in the kingdom of the dead, an unusually petty fiefdom made up of 15-foot-high skeletons in crowns. At the play's climax, Safford's infant head rolled over the orange leaf-covered hills of Theodore Wirth Park, having swelled to the rough dimensions of a Dutch barn. Perhaps this infant head was larger than the current puppet housed inside Bedlam's theater space, a ramshackle old storefront next to the West Bank

Karate Club and Palmer's Bar, once home to an African dance studio. (There is still an outline of Africa painted on the floor.)

But if the puppet inhabiting the Bedlam Theater space is not the world's largest, it must rank as the most unusual. At first, the puppet does not even resemble a puppet, looking instead like a stage set. And on this particular Thursday night, a little more than a week before Bedlam's new play Terminus is slated to open, it is a set that is still incomplete, despite the company's three continuous months of work. The creation is a great heap of plywood, foam, and cardboard that director Julian McFaul says costs, at this moment, just less than two thousand dollars. Completely encircling the performing area and rising to the roof of the storefront, it has been built to look like the interior of a vast spacecraft.

The audience--the set is so large that the space probably won't seat more than 50--will sit inside the belly of this beast as the action of the play takes place around them. There are several sections to this spacecraft, at this moment only roughed out by clumps of cardboard fastened by papier-mâché. Indeed, the whole of the set is still unfinished, with the lettering of paper bags from Cub Foods still visible, as well as such unexpected printed images as Elmo from Sesame Street and the words freezer/congelador/congelateur. Eventually the set will be painted and its rough cardboard sections will be made presentable: Just this afternoon members of the cast spent part of the day gluing children's toys, mostly gathered from local thrift shops, onto the section of the set referred to as the "cockpit."

Were this massive cardboard structure simply a set, it would be astonishing enough. But, as I have mentioned, it is also a puppet in the sense of being a representational object designed to be manipulated by puppeteers. This, however, is a puppet with a singular function: It spins. The whole of the spaceship is built on a platform of metal grating, which in turn is set atop rolling casters, such as those found on shopping carts. (I have a growing suspicion, by the way, that Cub Foods might unknowingly sponsor more theater arts, and particularly puppetry, than any number of McKnight grants.) With the efforts of a half-dozen crew members--often the actors who have temporarily left their posts aboard the spaceship--the set can turn in complete circles around the enclosed audience. And that's exactly what it does almost every time there is a scene change.

It is just this fact that has Julian McFaul seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. This is the day that the Bedlam Theater is running through the technical details of the play's transitions, which, for the most part, consist of figuring out when the set is going to spin, and who is going to spin it. The rehearsals began in the early afternoon, and right now it is nearly 9:30 p.m., which is when the cast quits rehearsal. The technical details were meant to take half the rehearsal period, but here it is, quitting time, with the details only half worked out.

McFaul is visibly fretting, seated on a chair in the middle of the set, scrap of paper with technical cues clutched in one hand, head covered with a sweatshirt hood. "It's amazingly, fuckingly, maddeningly complex," he calls out in frustration.

 

This is the second time Bedlam has turned to Terminus, a rather ghostly science-fiction story by Polish author Stanislaw Lem. Their first version was essentially a short shadow-puppet show, performed at the Red Eye space in 1999. The current production, giant puppet/set aside, is one of greatly expanded ambitions. For one thing, the script is far more complex: "Terminus" is just one story in a two-volume series dubbed Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Julian McFaul ransacked the entirety of the Pirx tales for the new script, with the aid of John F. Bueche, who penned the last Bedlam play, Freewheeling in the Attic of Whim, and who plays Pirx in this production.

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."

"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."

And now, well into the evening, some weak queries as to whether anybody wants to remain and do some more work hold no sway with the cast. "Okay," McFaul says, "I tell you what. It's 9:30 and we're all a little fried right now. Why don't we go home and get some sleep, and we'll start from where we left off tonight, and hopefully get it all done in an hour tomorrow."

But at the end of rehearsals the following day, they will still be rehearsing technical cues.

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