While an artist with no regard at all for the audience is (thankfully) a rarity, there are instances when more experimentally minded dramatists hide behind a mask of inscrutability, scaring away the easily intimidated and squandering a shot at communication. Not so with Open Eye Figure Theatre's Flat Works, a staging of three wholly unconventional works that refreshes with its imaginative scope, sense of fun, and apparent willingness to be taken at face value.
The venue is appropriately called the Tin Shed--it's got the industrial northeast Minneapolis vibe, with a crackling bonfire casting shadows on scrap parts and an electric car that's seen better days. Inside, though, it's been scrubbed up into a comfortable and intimate venue. Flat Works leads off with Out of Character, six dance sketches by Laurie Van Wieren in which she portrays, among other characters, a raving lunatic, an absurdist drunk, and a surreal circus performer brandishing a mechanical fish. The work's recorded soundtrack features stunning music by cellist Michelle Kinney with an electric backing. The music frames the dance pieces in flowers and barbed wire (bet you've never heard a cello sound drunk before), and Van Wieren moves with controlled recklessness through widely divergent emotional terrain while providing a good share of light moments.
The second piece, Poor Little Poor Girl, is a splicing of film, drama, and puppetry that tells the story of a baby and a mother (described as "nice but mental"). The film is dominated by text that moves, flips, and reconfigures itself; writer Kira Obolensky draws on silent-movie narrative for inspiration, and while the results are mixed (the projected words tread a fine line between quite amusing and too cute), a nice juxtaposition emerges between the words and Nancy Seward and Susan Haas's puppet work. That I was appalled when the baby got drunk on opening night suggests I had somewhat suspended my disbelief, even though nothing I was watching pretended to be real.
Michael Sommers's Under, Over, On wraps up the evening on an extraordinarily high note. The work is viewed on a screen behind which drawings, puppets, and backdrops are illuminated using opaque and transparent projections. I don't really understand what that means, either, but suffice it to say that this new direction for Sommers results in the creation of an immensely entertaining, abstract two-dimensional cartoon that is also a live performance. The action takes place in a heartless, mechanized city where the trucks blow past bearing the message "abandon all hope." It's a place of crows, rats, seedy apartments, and abrupt stylistic changes. Every 30 seconds the piece displays enough visual imagery to stock a very vivid dream, and it does so with a subversive and uninhibited sense of humor.
Reached by phone and asked to describe the work's narrative, Sommers sounded nonplussed. "You're going to have to help me with that one," he said. Of course narrative isn't the point in this case--Sommers has created a piece in which ideas flow like rivers of urine (you'll simply have to see it to understand what I mean). For the record, Over, Under, On was inspired by a notion about the Hindu elephant god Ganesh (remover of obstacles) riding a mouse and being trapped by a crow. The elephant's road to freedom links up with a city dweller making a hard choice in a treacherous world, and in Sommers's hands, it all makes elliptical sense.
It was no surprise to hear from Sommers that graphic novels were a source of inspiration for this work--there are shades of the drawings of Gary Panter, creator of the "Jimbo" series, in some of the backdrops and details. Watching the action manifest so much imagination, one wonders how Sommers and his crew pull it off, envisioning frantic scenes taking place behind the screen, but Sommers says with pride that they've got the labyrinthine action sufficiently down pat that "they could probably bake a cake between cues." Well, if they do, I'll have a slice. It's about the only thing Open Eye isn't offering in terms of atmosphere, enjoyment, and stimulation with Flat Works.