At a recent rehearsal for Bedlam Theatre's upcoming The Million Dollar Museum (opening September 11), actors Kimberly Richardson and Jon Cole's characters played out the eternal sibling dilemma of loyalty to family mythology versus steps toward something resembling sanity. The titular museum, under the iron will of their mother (played by Katie Kaufmann), is a testament to the family's warped and twisted view of the world. And by the way, it has never had a single visitor.
"It's the kind of place that's based on the individual psychosis of this person who created it, rather than on any facts or anything," says playwright Josef Evans. "It's this person's vision of the history of the universe, and it's ridiculous and strange."
Bedlam has produced two of Evans's plays in recent years, the 2006 Fringe hit Love in a Time of Rinderpest and last year's holiday dinner theater The Turducken. Both were rampantly absurdist comedies, full of twitchy word play and populated with characters in various states of alarmed delusion. Both were fine matches for Bedlam's experimental, go-for-broke company aesthetic.
"His humor is really specific," says director Maren Ward, who is also co-artistic director at Bedlam. "And it requires a specific performance style that ties into what we do. It's satirical and overblown, but with a sense of realism that both makes it funny and makes you empathize with it."
Just about everything Bedlam has touched in its 16-year history has come about in a collaborative process that sounds like controlled chaos, but which consistently results in an intangible company stamp. For Museum, local sound-art duo Beatrix*Jar provides sound; for each of the dioramas that will make up the show's set, Bedlam enlisted painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and fashion designers. Bedlam's other artistic director, John Bueche, points out that the collaboration might be far-flung, but it doesn't lack purpose or focus.
"It's a community effort," Bueche says. "This show is a lot of Joe [Evans's] vision that a lot of people are gathering around to collaborate and support."
Whatever the particular alchemy, Bedlam has evolved into a unique hybrid of theater company, music venue, food and drink destination, and community presence in its West Bank locale. Bueche points out that the organization has expanded tenfold since 2005, and it grew 20 percent financially from 2008 to 2009. The company brought in 100 neighborhood kids for summer workshops, and it partners regularly with local colleges for interns and research.
"The continuing experiment is how to be an experimental institution—the impact we can have in terms of art and community building," adds Ward. "And we're finding ways to mix the audiences that come in here for so many different things."
"We've got a ton of fantastic work being created," says Bueche, noting that the venue's five-nights-a-week restaurant space gives Bedlam organic possibilities about which other companies might dream. "You can get exposed to the [artistic] process and hang out with the artists informally. You can totally just hang out here. We have Vikings fans, Twins fans, just walk by the place after a game and decide to stop in for a beer."
Those familiar with Bedlam's earlier work and aesthetic might never have thought they'd see the day when the company served them dinner in a welcoming, roomy space with a bursting performance calendar (music, performance, regular fire spectacles). Considering the words of Ward and Bueche, though, their evolution seems perfectly natural (Bueche admits to spending nerdly amounts of time studying business and organizational development). The most important thing, ultimately, is that the work onstage remains resolutely off-kilter and idiosyncratic.
Back at rehearsal, Richardson and Cole's characters continue to spar over their mother's oppressive vision. "One of them is loyal and bought into the mythology," sums up Evans. "The other is at that moment of awakening—maybe this is all crap, maybe it's all junk."
Illusions die such messy deaths, in other words. And in some museums, best keep one eye on the exit at all times.