Artificial Intelligence

Putting the art into Jarts: Brave New Workshop's Levi Weinhagen, Laura Zabel, Bryan Schmeling, Tim Uren, and George Keller

Sketch comedy is notorious for its segues. How do you move from one unrelated sketch to another--say, from an improvised foreign film to a scenario in which two children start a price war between their competing lemonade stands, as occurs in the current Brave New Workshop show? These sketches were written by the performers, independent of each other, and it is an unhappy part of the director's job to find a way to get from one to the other. (This same dilemma gave birth to Terry Gilliam's animation career with Monty Python; Saturday Night Live, with typical American resourcefulness, employs commercials.) In the past few shows, the segues between BNW sketches have begun to show an inhuman ingenuity.

Indeed, one of the daily papers recently took a chunk of its diminishing news hole to comment on the marvelous bridges between BNW sketches, which are often as funny as the scenes themselves. Characters lurch like speeding automatons, moving furniture while the theme music to the Benny Hill show plays in the background. Audience members, dragged onstage, remain there for a full third of the show while sketch after sketch springs into existence around them. These segues reveal an insidious intelligence lurking in the background of the productions, which belongs to one Caleb McEwen.

A longtime performer with the company and now a director, McEwen has begun to seize control of the Brave New Workshop in something of a bloodless coup. Indeed, one gets the sense from owners Jenni Lilledahl and John Sweeney, who bought the improv theater from founder Dudley Riggs in 1997, that McEwen's increasing role at the company is a relief to them. From the stage of the Calhoun Square theater on the opening night of their latest production--which in typically longwinded fashion is titled Minnesota Summer: It's Not the Heat, It's the Stupidity, or Why Can't We All Just Get a Thong--Sweeney confessed that for the first time since taking over the theater, he and Lilledahl no longer feel responsible for every detail of the production. (That's a good thing, too, as Lilledahl, a comic actor of some note, has been busy filming sequences for Comedy Central's upcoming run of Let's Bowl.)

The Workshop's gratitude aside, McEwen seems a strange bird. Young, well built, and tall, with a neatly cut head of red hair, he has an oddly distant quality about him, as though he were lost in thought and really shouldn't be interrupted. When he speaks, it is in complete, grammatically formal sentences that build carefully toward a prim punch line. For example, he took the stage on opening night in a natty suit and explained to the audience that there had been a series of power outages in Uptown that evening, including one that affected the half of Calhoun Square opposite the theater. "If the lights should go out on this half of the building, you will sit and wait until the backup lights come on," he lectured the audience. "We will not have any rioting or looting in this theater. We do not have anything that you would want."

In the sound booth, operating the electrical end of the theater, was McEwen's brother Josh. "Yes, I look like my brother," Josh writes of himself in the program, and indeed he does, sharing the same handsome features, but in a younger and more rubbery way. After the show, at a small party in the theater, several students from the Brave New Institute were inspired by the younger McEwen to develop a new theory about Caleb's puzzling remoteness and exactitude--a frequent topic of discussion among this crowd. "I think [Caleb's] younger brother was a genius only child," one student declared. "[Josh] got lonely for an older brother, and so he built one." This remark brought a round of agreement from the other students, who felt it explained why Caleb McEwen has been so good at playing robots.

In the improvised sets that have followed previous mainstage shows, McEwen habitually (and robotically?) throws bizarre, unexpected factoids into his improvisations, launches into long, literary monologues, and mimes complex behavior with an inhuman precision. Were this a show co-produced by Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, it would certainly end with McEwen being fired from a cannon into a spinning propeller--even though McEwen often engages in such unlikely robotic behavior as detonating into unexpected fits of giggling and waving his middle finger at castmates when crossed by them.

But this is not Kubrick or Spielberg's show; it is McEwen's. And as director he has applied his artificial intelligence to an unusual achievement: He has created a piece featuring a mostly new set of performers without sacrificing the usual BNW quality. Though sketch comedy is always a hit-or-miss affair, when a new cast takes the stage, the number of misses typically skyrockets. Minnesota Summer features three performers who are new to the BNW stage--George Keller, Levi Weinhagen, and Laura Zabel. Additionally, the two remaining cast members are still somewhat recent additions: Tim Urenis in his third show and Bryan Schmeling in his second.

The sketches themselves are no masterpieces, although there is thankfully little of the company's usual comedic reliance on thick Midwestern accents and jokes about Fridley. Sample skits include one concerning a homely high school girl (Keller) who boasts of a seemingly invented boyfriend from camp, another about a father who is too obsessed with his lawn to notice the growing misbehavior of his children. Not exactly Noel Coward, yes, but the cast tackles these slight premises with an alarming energy (particularly Uren who, when given the chance, seems to enjoy screaming his lines directly at the audience).

So, too, they find some mean little comic bits hidden in these scenes, presumably under McEwen's guidance. In one instance, Levi Weinhagen plays former Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Having returned to the dome to play opposite the Twins, he waits on base for his opportunity to steal. He chats idly with other players, discussing how the team has changed in the past few years, and the scene would glow with the haze of hometeam nostalgia were it not for the fact that Twins fans repeatedly fling garbage at Knoblauch. A casual discussion of the World Series, for example, yields to Knoblauch being pelted with trash and doused with gasoline. "Hey, c'mon, jeez!" he protests. "What was that about?" So much for the Workshop's long habit of gently ribbing Minnesota Nice. This is a Minnesota that ain't nice at all.

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