The Big Lowdown promises, based on the producers' interviews with people who have come to Minnesota from other countries, "a showcase of immigrant tales!"
Bedlam Theatre Lowertown
That evokes images of costumed interpreters holding suitcases and delivering awkward monologues, but by the time I was speeding down what I later learned was likely Mounds Boulevard, huddled in the back of a beat-up minivan underneath a dirty blanket and trying my best not to invade the personal space of the financial advisor who'd been unwillingly separated from her fiancé, I realized this wasn't going to be that kind of show.
A collaboration among Bedlam Theatre, Dangerous Productions, and Live Action Set, The Big Lowdown turns Bedlam Lowertown ("and possibly a bit beyond," which in the case of my group turned out to be an understatement) into a maze of confusion. Rather than telling specific immigrants' stories, director Tyler Olsen and his team set out to evoke the general experience of arriving in a foreign place where you don't understand the language and it's sometimes impossible to grasp what's expected of you.
Equipped with identification papers (or not, some people don't receive any) , you're marched to Bedlam's basement, where you go through processes including — I may be approximating, because ambiguity is precisely the point — applying for jobs, finding a safe place to stay, and learning about the culture of "Upportornia." The pastel-clad locals speak in a dialect that veers between sheer gibberish and something approximating Spanish. They often seem impatient or even angry, letting you know that you're really inconveniencing them just by being there.
The Big Lowdown is the most recent in a string of collaborations between Dangerous Productions and Live Action Set, and it shows once again why the partnership is a good fit. Both companies are interested in adventurous, often interactive experiences; Live Action Set specializes in high-concept theatricality, while the Dangerous crew brings an earthy irreverence that keeps the proceedings from becoming too precious.
The result, in this case, is a creative and well-executed production that succeeds at creating a feeling of unease, along with a sense of resentment and — occasionally, intentionally — boredom. It's not exactly a comfortable experience, and it's not meant to be. However, the more taxing aspects of the show are leavened with flashes of humor, and moments that spark your curiosity and spur a sense of camaraderie with your randomly-selected "family members."
At the end, there's a sort of emotional apotheosis, and some explanation as to exactly what it all was about, as well as some words of advice from recent immigrants that sound much like what those who came to Minnesota via Ellis Island might have also recommended: Don't be afraid to try the weird food. Learn the language, but don't forget your own. Bring a coat.