The Babylon Gallery is a terrible place to mount a play. And not just in a superficial way--its problems run deeper than such nugatory details as its funny sight lines, limited seating, and poor ventilation. No, it is terrible in some of the most fundamental ways a performance space can be terrible. Open the doors, and the sounds of Lake Street roar in, as though the traffic itself had entered the gallery with you. The room is oddly proportioned--long and deep, with a small raised stage at one end--and does not offer even the sparest theatrical lighting. Even the walls are distracting, hung with a series of enormous paintings that feature cartoonlike body parts--hands, thighs, faces--crisscrossed with grisly, alarmingly realistic stitches and scars.
It is hard to say whether the paintings or the traffic sounds are more distracting. And, alas, amid this din something is being rehearsed this late Tuesday night, somewhat hidden behind seated cast members. (Among its many problems is the fact that the Babylon Gallery doesn't offer raked seating, which means that one spends a lot of time looking at the backs of people's heads.) Whatever is being rehearsed, it will have to work hard to get noticed.
To be fair, there is no reason the Babylon Gallery should be anything less than terrible as a theater venue. After all, it is not a theater venue. It is, instead, an art gallery--and sometime punk club--and may be a very fine one at that. (This remains to be seen, as the gallery recently opened in the former Gus Lucky's space, and is still mostly empty.) Whatever the gallery may have to offer, it is a satisfying theater setting for at least one person: Molly Balcom.
She is small and 25 years old, with black hair and thick-framed black glasses, and she is in charge of the rehearsal taking place, as both the producer and director of Biedermann and the Firebugs. The play is Swiss writer Max Frisch's satiric melodrama about an irritable German businessman whose two uninvited houseguests are likely behind a series of citywide conflagrations.
Balcom has a taste for such avant-garde fare: She was a cast member in the Praxis Group's first production, and she mounted a staging of Beckett's Endgame at the Soap Factory last year. Balcom herself has penned a handful of original scripts, including one titled The Monkey Play, which she produced as part of a series of shorts at the Rogue Buddha Gallery last September. In her words, the story is about "an inventor, a knitter, and a monkey who passed letters between them. He was making her a present, she was making him a present, but they didn't communicate very well because of the monkey. So the monkey had to remove himself." Balcom adds to this description, affecting a tone of exaggerated whimsy: "It was a love story, of course."
This will be the fourth play Balcom has produced in a gallery in the past two years, and later this year she will again be staging a series of short scripts, collectively titled Works/Plays, at the Rogue Buddha. Producing a play at a gallery is a novel approach to beating the Twin Cities' notorious crunch for theater space, where the most affordable rooms generally cost $600-plus dollars a week. Further, at that bargain rate, the venues rarely have much better seating or lighting than can be found at the Babylon Gallery.
Galleries not only suit Balcom's wallet--she's the sole financer of the show--but also her aesthetic. "With a gallery, it's a blank space," she says. "There's a freedom, a sense of engagement." She points out one of the benefits of performing at a gallery, where every item on the stage takes on a near-iconic significance. The set may be nothing more than a pillow, but "when you put a pillow there [at a gallery], it's a pillow." She shifts her voice to represent the significance of the item. "When we did Endgame at the Soap Factory, all we did was put a ladder up against the wall, and there it was: Endgame."
The Firebugs has eight characters (or should we say characters?) and a small chorus of firemen (who have received their emergency training from the Keystone Kops). Balcom recruited these folks by placing a notice on the Minnesota Film and TV Board's hotline. This turned out to be a terrific way to attract actors, but, while several in her cast have some film credits, few have any stage experience. Balcom calls them "the film actors," and some of Balcom's suggestions as a director have bewildered them.
At this moment, a week and a half before the play's opening date, Balcom is walking her actors through a tricky bit of stage business. It is a scene early in the play, when the businessman Biedermann and his stuffy wife genially try to oust their unwelcome guest. The actor playing Biedermann, a thin, bespectacled man with a worried face, must fumble for his keys, newspaper, and suitcase while sniping at his wife. Meanwhile, one of the interlopers, a former circus wrestler, listens in from the shadows. The actor playing Biedermann spills out his lines in a rather unformed fashion, his attention nearly exclusively on his physical actions. During his dialogue, he apologizes for shouting, but he is not shouting--indeed, some of his dialogue is incomprehensible. (If your voice falls at the Babylon Gallery, it is inaudible.)