Joker's Wild

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

Since his return to Minneapolis, where he spent much of the early '90s, O'Donoghue has steered clear of toxic directors and the sorts of actors he refers to as "cosmopolitan assholes." In fact, the only director he's worked with other than himself is Bovino. (The pair takes turns writing and directing Flaneur's plays.) The two make a great team. Bovino is the practical one, the producer or co-producer of every play to date; O'Donoghue fills the challenging role of the aesthete. Plus, Bovino, with his Cosa Nostra cool, is a tough nut to crack, as was demonstrated during his initiation into public Flaneurdom at the Walker.

The ruckus left him thoroughly unfazed, despite the fact that he, too, was a Walker employee at the time. "First, I thought, 'cool,'" Bovino says. "Then I thought, Aww, John, whydja have to hit him? But fuck it. I'd have done the same thing myself."


David Fick

Nobody is slapping anyone at the Lowry Hill apartment O'Donoghue shares with painter Mary Kerr, his partner of three years, one bitterly cold Saturday night in March. Except, that is, for Lee Marvin, who's pretty much pounding the shit out of everyone he isn't shooting or having sex with. That's only on the screen, though. The cast and crew of The Young Machines have gathered here to watch 1967's Technicolor thriller Point Blank, an O'Donoghue favorite.

It's a smart strategic move on his part. Some of the production members have never even been in the same room before, and the film provides the perfect catalyst for camaraderie. No one can resist the sight of Marvin, as the psychopath Walker, exploding into his double-crossing wife's boudoir and pumping the empty bed full of lead. Next, he watches mutely as she walks into the room and slumps onto the still-smoking bed.

"It's not the first time I've slept around bullet holes," jokes actor Don Mabley-Allen, taking the wife's part.

"Beats the wet spot," production assistant Nina Wrayge quips.

From that point on, the film is more a jumping-off point for jocularity than the center of attention, especially after a neighbor drops by with beer and a downloaded copy of the Project for a New American Century's bloodthirsty magnum opus Rebuilding America's Defenses (free for the taking at O'Donoghue leaps out of his chair like he just got a hotfoot, grabs the thick sheaf of paper, and brandishes it at everyone in the room. "Have you seen this thing?" he inquires, trembling. "It's terrible!"

While everyone's attention span is fragmented, the film is light on dialogue and loud. Consequently, it's easy enough to follow. And the very open-ended conclusion, which leaves you wondering whether Walker did just kill all those people, parallels O'Donoghue's philosophies to a tee. Some of them, anyway. O'Donoghue is full of philosophies.

At the moment, he's also full of beer. "I detest the well-made play," he explains in the kitchen, which, like the rest of the apartment, is spotless--unusually so for the lair of an artistic couple. "You know, the play where all the blanks are filled in at the end and all the questions neatly answered? That sort of thing is best left to the Jungle. I want to write plays that I walk away from without knowing all the answers."

He's almost certainly attained his goal with The Young Machines. Set in an underground bunker, miles beneath the planet's surface, the show depicts a handful of crumbling psy-war operatives and surveillance experts (Team USA, of course). Leading the group, naturally, is O'Donoghue as Colonel Dick "Jazz" Dogwood. It has all the earmarks of a Flaneur play: madness, death, decay, apocalypse, and just the tiniest hint of possible rebirth and/or renewal. The Young Machines also features Cutlan's "high-tech" set, canned laughter in all the wrong places, Montana ranch-style pizza with barbecue sauce, and a TV show called Maritime Tribunal.

The script is derived in part from O'Donoghue's everyday life. "The surveillance booth is the Walker control room," he indicates, nursing his Guinness. "Or it could be the MIA (his current place of employment). It's Joe Sixpack's wildest dream and worst nightmare all rolled into one. Twelve TV sets--all in one convenient room! And Dogwood is a compendium of all the coach types I encountered in school. You know, the 'all right guys, listen up' types."

O'Donoghue can be quite the coach himself, at least in the vast, desolate, and dusty rehearsal space the Flaneurs share with a number of visual artists, as well as the likes of musicians the Pins, Salamander, and Barlow/Petersen/Wivinus. (That's Barlow as in Flaneur Rich Barlow, who also plays in the Pins and creates soundtracks for all the plays. Flaneur Productions might be the only theater company around that releases a soundtrack with every production.) Even if the cast members weren't hung over from the previous night's Point Blank bacchanal, O'Donoghue wouldn't be barking at them to do 50 pushups (although the players do warm up with some fairly interesting stretches).

Instead, he directs gently, like a high priest instructing his acolytes in a sunny meadow. "Feel the atmosphere around you," he intones, bringing a hand up slowly and gracefully through the ether in front of him. "What does it feel like? Is it solid? Liquid? Gaseous?" O'Donoghue isn't just pulling his approach out of one of the neatly bagged Schlitz, Blatz, Hamm's, or Old Style cans that line one wall of the studio. Nor is he distilling it from the golden contents of the tightly sealed plastic bottles tucked discreetly under a table in the band room. (The bottles are a testament to the fact that the nearest rest room is four floors down.)

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