Joker's Wild

Theatrical eccentric John O'Donoghue assaults dramatic conventions--and the stray security guard--to create a new kind of show

Nobody fucks with the Red Chef. Nobody. Not no time, not no place, not no how. Certainly none of the affluent singles mingling at this particular installment of the Walker's After Hours social would ever consider such a thing. They're mostly the kind of folks who'd take one look at John O'Donoghue and think: Uh oh, crazy-looking guy in a red chef's outfit at the top of the stairs--some kind of rampaging performance artist, probably--better cut him an extra-wide berth. And that's probably before the head affixed to his stanchion even caught their eye. Jim Bovino, wearing corresponding white chef's garb at the bottom of the stairs, sure isn't going to make trouble. He's Flann, the aspirant, watching in awe as O'Donoghue stands at a folding table re-creating the world by vigorously tossing a salad of rubber baby-doll heads, lettuce, and raw chicken.

But theater thrives on conflict. And so when a young man dressed in the uniform of a Walker security guard, cute little vest and all, ventures into the performance area, O'Donoghue slaps him soundly in the face. The man stalks off and the skit continues to its apparent conclusion. But in a bizarre epilogue that occurs while O'Donoghue is chatting with friends in one of the galleries, a woman in a Walker security-manager costume bursts

onto the scene and starts upbraiding O'Donoghue for slapping dude. It's a lovely little piece of museum guerilla theater, rendered all the more memorable by the fact that the guy wearing the guard uniform was an actual Walker security guard, as was O'Donoghue at the time, and the lady who chewed O'Donoghue out was their boss.

As you may have already surmised, John O'Donoghue is a character. With his brown mop top, coltish demeanor, and abundant laugh lines, O'Donoghue is the sort of 37-year-old who can pass for 27 or 47 at will, although the slacker sweaters, hoodies, and boot-cut jeans he favors tend to nudge him toward the former, as does his gangly frame. He's a complete deck of jokers, a bouncing ball of energy so ferocious that one night at Grumpy's, in the course of demonstrating a move he'd just learned at Tai Chi class, he somehow managed to knock a ketchup dispenser to the floor from three tables away.

The writer, actor, and director is also a serious artist, the sort of round peg in a square world whose singular vision attracts like-minded souls. Bovino is one such collaborator, as are composer/graphic artist Rich Barlow, designer Nate Cutlan, and thespian Don Mabley-Allen. With O'Donoghue, these four form the core of Flaneur Productions, a collective devoted largely to presenting the kind of extremely nonlinear theater that Walker performing-arts booker Doug Benidt calls "live dreams." (The name "flaneur" refers to someone whose aim it is to aimlessly stroll the city streets.) O'Donoghue's circle of admirers extends beyond the realm of what playwright Lisa D'Amour calls "Flaneurophiles"--the fellow artists and fans who follow the troupe and subscribe to the Flaneurs' mailing list (flaneurs@yahoo.com). O'Donoghue has been referred to as a genius by any number of people, including former Burning House Group colleague Noel Raymond, who worked with him on three partly inscrutable productions in the mid-nineties.

He's also been called a few other things--by his former boss at the Walker, for example. "She called me uncouth, "O'Donoghue says, chuckling over the phone from his home. He's obviously thoroughly unrepentant nearly two years after the slapping incident. "I thought that was great. Nobody had ever called me uncouthbefore."

If O'Donoghue's fellow guard had seen Wildlife, the solo piece that launched Flaneur Productions at the Minneapolis Fringe Festival in 2000, he might have thought twice about walking onto the scene in such a couthless manner. In it, O'Donoghue plays Tommy, a disintegrating artist in a big city who, even as he holds on to just enough of his sanity to stay at large, remains all too aware of his madness. A reprise at a Flaneur benefit last summer was poignant to the point of being heartbreaking, and, at the same time, terrifying--this despite the fact that it took place in a stark white gallery space with only a few clothes on the floor for props. O'Donoghue makes a great crazy guy. Not only did you feel trapped in the room with Tommy as he interacted with any number of invisible characters; you felt as though you were trapped inside his head.

"A lot of me went into Tommy," O'Donoghue says over beers one night at Eli's, recalling the years he spent in New York in the latter half of the '90s. He's just come from a production meeting for his new play The Young Machines, which opens April 10 at Franklin ArtWorks, and his eyes, which pretty much twinkle all the time, are even brighter than usual. "I was never that far gone, but I was so frustrated, so angry at the machinery in New York, and so angry at what I saw a lot of actors I knew becoming. And the directors were awful. I'd go to auditions frozen from the neck down before anything even happened, just from the anticipation of having to deal with these poisonous nerds."

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