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."

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."

 

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 www.newamericancentury.org/publicationsreports.htm). 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.)

What O'Donoghue is doing is employing the Chekhov system of acting, the body of technique developed by Michael Chekhov, a Russian actor and pedagogue who spent his latter years in Hollywood coaching Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Quinn, and a host of other screen legends. In his free time, this nephew of the great Russian writer acted in films--nine of them--earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound. "Chekhov puts the actor's imagination at the center of the process," O'Donoghue explains.

Bovino and Mabley-Allen have both embraced Chekhov as well. "I think it makes you a more interesting actor," Mabley-Allen observes, while Bovino, succinct as usual, asserts, "It's fucking great!" And everyone in the company refers to Chekhov's On the Technique of Acting simply as "the book."

"Working with the Chekhov techniques has given me a sense of freedom I never had before," O'Donoghue claims, "and the confidence to find the sense of structure I lacked." On a sweet, personal note he adds, "and my relationship with Mary has given me a sense of stability to match."

At the moment, Mabley-Allen, fresh from some work with his atmosphere, is sitting on a folding chair in the center of the room. He's Herb, the seemingly shell-shocked surveillance master in The Young Machines. He's the one who's doing the barking, as he introduces Dogwood like a psychotic drill instructor, staring off into some unseen calamity: "This man is a one-man justice tag team. He tags himself. Automatically, zigzagging across the hemispheres of the brain. A brain warrior, that's what the man is. A goddamn brain warrior."

The Young Machines may read something like David Mamet for, by, and of the damned--or at least the profoundly darned. And sometimes the playwright pares the dialogue to zero. Hell, the Red Chef didn't say anything, he just swung when the opportunity presented itself, much like Lee Marvin in Point Blank. But off the stage, O'Donoghue is the sort of conversationalist who can leap gracefully from Czech surrealism to 15th-century puppetry, then skate to the genesis of the Dr. Faustus legend, then do a backflip to the attainments of German mystic Rudolf Steiner, landing finally on Deleuze and Guattari's rhizome theory, without even getting all that high-falutin'. And usually, he manages to make whatever point he set out to make in the first place, although sometimes it requires a "now what was I saying?" on his part.

But he's at his best--offstage, anyway--on paper, especially when he's a bit riled and half in character. Witness this inspired spew to the Flaneur mailing list, filed from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where Flaneur Productions presented Bovino's Soft Sleepers, last year:

 

What Americans have to realize is that prescriptive theory-based approaches to art, the weight of academics, think tanks, corporations, "The theatre of experts," conservative know-nothings, and politically correct stormtroopers, are stripping away our souls. It's horrifying to realize that Americans, who used to be renowned for open expression, peculiarity, etc., are developing a reputation for being soulless, unquestioning robotic schlubs...but the fact is that the Fringe Festival, which I believe is in its 67th season, has never had fewer dramas in it. Never fewer original works, never has it had more Broadway style comedies, musicals, deadly jazzbo "physical theatre." "Watch as Denver-based jazzbotronic movement actor Buddy Whitby wrangles his penis into....it's a poodle...no, wait...now it's a bird of prey." Count them, people, not the penis puppets (which sold out by the way) but the 452 standup comedians. The yawbs of these miserable cretins are all over Edinburgh, on buses, on streetcorners, each one has the same uniform expression, that Carrot Top toothy grin. "I'm out of control! Hey this is too much fun! Easy does it ladies there's enough of me to go around! Wow! I woke up this morning and it's so crazy to be me! Watch out for me baby, yeah!"

 

Now what was he saying again?

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