Make Way for Genius!

Is the ministry of cultural warfare the most important thing to happen to the local theater scene since a man named Guthrie came to town?

With a breeze at my back but little wind in my sails, I'm standing over the most important putt of my life. I'm only three feet from the hole, but it feels like a mile, and the cup looks like a pinprick on the horizon. My opponents, five members of the theater company Ministry of Cultural Warfare, taunt me with their mere presence. What demon of vanity spurred me to suggest this foolish challenge? What made me choose this unlucky yellow ball?

There are some who would belittle the great sport of golf by calling it a "game," as it if were some silly Saturday afternoon time-sapper requiring no more athleticism than Jarts or Boggle. Who knows, maybe they're right--I don't play golf. Putt-putt, however, is something I take very seriously, and never more than at this moment, when my dubious journalistic career depends on the capricious hills and curves of Richfield's Adventure Gardens mini-golf course.

Allow me to explain. You see, I have this new editor, a big wheel in from one of our sister papers in the northern Rocky Mountain states. This guy is a self-described ball buster--"I'm going to make the Nutcracker Suite sound like a ballet," he barked on his first day. When one of the staff longhairs rolled her eyes at this ignorant quip, our team of classical-music critics was suddenly pared to eight.

For months I've been planning to lead our Fringe Festival coverage with a feature on Ministry of Cultural Warfare, a spunky theater outfit that offers some of the sharpest and funniest satire in town. MoCW debuted at the 2000 Fringe, and it has grown into one of the festival's hottest commodities. Their 2003 offering, Industrials, which dramatizes and deconstructs instructional films from the 1950s, is a good bet to lead the Fringe pack in attendance. I was all set to submit a flattering profile of the group when I got the following e-mail:

As the above postscript suggests, this editor is fiercely competitive; his love of critical tantrums is only equaled by his passion for sport. I agreed to a skewering of the Ministry, but only if they were given a fighting chance to prevent it. A wager was laid, originally suggested in jest but soon committed to with sweaty-palmed seriousness: I would compete against the company in 18 holes of miniature golf. If victorious, I'd turn in a profile filled with bile and slander. If they won, they'd be rewarded with an unctuous puff piece barely distinguishable from a press release.

MoCW brought out their big guns: Matthew Foster, artistic director and playwright; Leigha Horton, executive director; Matt Kessen, editorial director; Lara Brown, events director and costume designer; and Brett Baldwin, technical director. Cannily, I spoke not a peep about the long days I had spent on the links as a youth, and certainly didn't recount how a taciturn club pro had once called my short game "good."

As we carpooled to the course, I snuck in some subtle inquiries about the group's athletic ability and socio-economic origins. As I expected from a group lousy with leftists and cigarette smokers, there were no golfers in the fold. With perhaps overweening self-assurance, I ventured to play against their "best ball"--for each hole the MoCW team would be awarded the lowest score of any of their five players.

I lost a stroke on hole one, but matched their low ball on two, three, and four. I watched with delight as Kessen--who stands just 17 inches shy of 8 feet--gripped his putter like a steroidal slugger pawing a corked bat. More than once did he clobber his unfortunate pastel ball from here to Augusta, as if we were on some sort of whimsical driving range. Brown displayed potential, but proved to be the queen of missed opportunities. On the seventh hole, she disgraced a gorgeous approach shot by flubbing a three-inch gimme--even her teammates enjoyed a robust laugh over this one. Foster was hapless and timorous; Horton, a reliable bogey woman. Undoubtedly the occasional lucky break would give me a challenge, but victory was within reach.

But the winds changed around the middle of the front nine, with a hole in one from the unassuming Baldwin. In an admittedly juvenile attempt at psychological attrition, I re-christened this bearded and bespectacled dark horse Johnny One Ball, which only seemed to sharpen his Ben Hogan-like precision. On the labyrinthine tenth, he performed another one-stroke wonder. At this point I was behind by ten.

"Ouch," said Baldwin, shifting his steely gaze from the scorecard to my lightly misted eyes. "I've haunted some putt-putt courses in my day," he added, "but this is a fluke."

The fanfaronade grew piercing. Foster, despite scant contributions to his team's success, started puffing about challenging Star Tribune drama critic Rohan Preston to a skeet-shooting tourney.

In the end, it took five MoCW players to shoot two over par for the round. Pathetically, that mediocre display sufficed. In a humiliating breakdown of confidence and technique, I wound up hacking out a 64, three touchdowns south of snuff at Adventure Gardens, and 19 strokes worse than my gloating opponents.

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