Birth, School, Work, Death

Christopher Bayes, Todd Griffin, and Aaron Landsman

Impassioned Embraces
Fifty Foot Penguin Theater

Thursday, July 2.

Bryant-Lake Bowl. 7 p.m.



A body pops on stage. The newborn, who looks suspiciously like ex-Minneapolitan actor Aaron Landsman, clumsily negotiates his limbs into a standing position. Steady. Steady...Whoops.


Another body pops on stage. The newborn, who looks suspiciously like ex-Minneapolitan actor Todd Griffin, clumsily negotiates his limbs into a standing position. Steady. Steady...

Welcome to Wreckage, a touring New York performance piece by Landsman, Griffin, and director Christopher Bayes that puts its audience smack in the middle of a pomo Homo sapiens big bang. Landsman and Griffin are birthed into the blackness of the theater, with no referents except the other. So they socialize by playing formless games in a primordial free-for-all. Then, a dusty tome falls from the sky and lands at their feet. An authoritative voice booms, "Your Life: An Owner's Manual." Ah, directions!

"CHAPTER ONE: YOUR BODY UNIT." The two babes embark on their explorations with giddy delight. When the time comes to learn about "sexual organs," Landsman looks down his pants. Then Griffin looks down his pants, and the two point and giggle as their willies rise and fall. The newborns proceed to develop their own means of communication in the form of elaborate physical rituals.

The audience, meanwhile, is relearning how to communicate: Moving side to side is a greeting, thrusting pelvises forward means love. We fall into their world, with a curiosity and childish delight. As the rituals repeat, we come to understand them better--like a Teletubbies for adults-- and we slowly learn to focus on what is being signified--not only how funny the signs are to watch. The "real" phrases the pair learns, such as "You've got to pay for that, asshole!" and "Have a sample?" are decontextualized and given new meanings. As Griffin goes out to seek employment, Landsman uses these learned rituals to communicate his loneliness, and they carry more poignancy than any traditional speech might.

When Landsman and Griffin reach "CHAPTER SEVEN: AUTUMN YEARS AND DEATH," the book announces that all the choices they have made thus far are irrevocable. But now, at least, they have the chance to do what they've never had time to do before. (Landsman, for example, scratches his chest; Griffin hikes up his pants.) And then comes death. ("Death is a part of life. The last part.") The two lie down, as instructed, to play their final game. But they can't quite get comfortable and keep shifting and giggling like kindergartners at nap time as the lights come slowly down. Wreckage expires with one last new ritual; we learn that if you can greet death giggling, all those irrevocable choices have been good ones.

Thursday, July 2.

Bryant-Lake Bowl. 9:30 p.m.

A man dressed all in black walks center stage and begins to elocute. "Sex and death! Sex and death!" he rants. The man, who looks suspiciously like an untalented version of local actor Bill Franke, launches into a monologue that seems to have something to do with 'Nam and sticking his hand in some guy's stomach, but it all goes by too quickly to understand. This doesn't bode well.

Then, a voice from the audience: "Bill? I don't know what to say...What you did now was total shit. Did you know that?"

Bill Franke looks down. "No."

"It was absolute shit," says the audience member, who looks suspiciously like local director Zach Curtis. "I never dealt with an actor like you before. You're a little amateur shit! I'm not being critical. I'm just being honest. Start from the beginning."

Franke sighs. "Sex and death!"

Welcome to Impassioned Embraces, the debut production of Fifty Foot Penguin Theater. The script is a collection of comic sketches written by John Pielmeier (who is also, improbably, the author of Agnes of God) that features a cast of characters who share early '80s sensibilities, a penchant for Beckett-meets-UPN dialogue, and a love for the word "tits." (In the first 10 minutes of the show, "tits" is said about 15 times--for an estimated 1.5 Tits-Per-Minute.) After Curtis tortures Franke into a better performance, Kate Eifrig, Ryan Jensen, and Jennifer LaSalle get their chance to say "tits." Then piano music floats over the audience. A spotlight shines center stage. Laura Depta, dressed in a black shirt and skirt, appears, gathers herself, and begins, "Let me tell you about my father's death." A perfectly enjoyable evening threatens to devolve into bathetic crap, but, like the opening sketch, Depta's tragic monologue soon turns on its head, the play satirizes its genre, and we can breathe easy.

The script is perfectly adequate, albeit dated. Some of the humor comes from a Reagan-era feminist consciousness in which most men act like prehominids, and the situations have lost their satirical bite. No matter: This cast could make a pot roast funny. The six ensemble members prove comedic adepts, with an innate understanding of timing and the subtleties of gesture and expression--a promising debut for a new company living in the shadow of one really big penguin.

Wreckage will play July 9 and 10; Impassioned Embraces runs Thursdays through July 31. Both shows are at Bryant-Lake Bowl; call 825-8949.

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