It's fitting that the latest collaboration between Kevin Kling and Open Eye Figure Theatre opened at the end of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Humanimal has a similar vibe to many of the Fringe offerings, existing somewhere between ramshackle and a Frankenstein's monster of a show. In fact, the two halves of the show feel like completely different pieces, connected vaguely by theme and more solidly by the talents of the company of performers on stage.
The popular storyteller has made a home at Open Eye each August for the past seven years, working with the theater's master puppeteer, Michael Sommers, and a trio of musicians: vocalist Simone Perrin and cellists Michelle Kinney and Jacqueline Ultan. Over the years, they've explored plenty of topics, from faith to politics to recovering from serious injury. This time out, they look at our relationship with animals.
In the first half of the piece, Kling works in his customary storytelling form, sharing tales that explore his own relationship with animals. It starts in typical fashion, as he talks about a pair of special dogs and then one of his horses, Zeus, who was nursed back to health as a colt from a grievous case of poisoning.
HUMANIMAL 506 E. 24th St., Minneapolis Through August 18, 612.874.6338
Also in typical Kling manner, it starts to get weird after that. The third story is all about taxidermy — a story he admits generated a lot of negative feedback when he read it on MPR — and the mania for this distinct preservation of passed animals that swept through his Boy Scout troop. Kling merges his easy-going style with deeper philosophical questions in a manner that never seems forced, making each of the stories compelling, moving, and funny.
The weirdness that started at the end of Act One explodes in Act Two, as the storytelling gives way to an extended bit about a nature show gone wrong. Here, Kling plays the host of the "televised" program (think Wild Kingdom) who's lost all connection to the natural world, keeping it locked away in cages, and is frightened of even a simple earthworm. On this particular episode, he hopes to reconnect through a serum he ingests. He is joined by Sommers, who plays underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau because ... well, he does resemble the man a bit, and he can deploy a broad French accent. Actually, Sommers gets plenty of mileage out of the role, forming a nice comedic double act with Kling.
The sequence has entertaining moments, from puppet earthworms — the main puppetry sequence in the show — who know kung fu (maybe it's right to be afraid of them) to a description of the dangerous barracuda by Sommers, underscored by a smoking verse of the Heart song of the same name. Yet it often feels like a simple idea for a sketch that has been stretched beyond its breaking point to fill a full second half of the program. While Kling's message about finding the connection between our human and animal selves (as hinted in the title) rings true, it takes an awful long time to get there in the back half of the show.
Helping the sequence move along is the music. In addition to the Heart song, there are touches of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" and pieces by Bartok and Schubert. Beyond that, there are several full animal-themed songs that bridge the gaps between the stories in the first act and work as bookends in the second.
In the past, Perrin has produced some absolute highlights, such as CCR's "Fortunate Son" in last year's Politico. This time out, the biggest moments come on either side of the intermission. At the end of Act One, we get a stuttering, skittering take on the Beatles' "Hey Bulldog," complete with barking, as Perrin channels all of John Lennon's bite. Then after the break, they burn through the Troggs' "Wild Thing." It starts out hesitantly, as if Perrin isn't sure the wild thing in the title is really the one for her, but it builds through each verse. By the end, she and the musicians (joined by Sommers on drums) are fully convinced, letting rip with punk abandon.
There are other solid musical moments, including the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and the ending "Bird on a Wire," which gives a touch of extra shape to the extremely loose second half of the show.