Brave New Workshop revisits the past

The gang's all here
Dani Werner

Long the staple of artists taking a breather and record labels looking for a fresh way to cash in on "Hotel California," the greatest-hits package has fallen on tough times. The rise of online purchases means that any fan can compile, say, One Direction's best tunes in a single place.

It's not just musicians who use this tactic. Television shows have long employed "clip" episodes to help fill out seasons. NBC manages to pack in several Saturday Night Live compilations a year, and shows like The Soup take the best TV has to offer each week and compress them into a single program.

The Brave New Workshop certainly has more history than a week or a season or even the career of the vampire-like Eagles. For 55 years, the Minneapolis institution has brought lively satire, comedic songs, and pinpoint observations to audiences along Hennepin Avenue (and on the West Bank, and for a time in St. Paul).

So a piece like Attack of the Best of the Brave New Workshop, now running at the theater's downtown Minneapolis location, is a natural fit. The company has combed through years of sketches and songs to piece together a creature that largely works. Even the political bits still have bite, which might say more about the morass in St. Paul and Washington than anything else.

This becomes clear at the top of Act Two with the "Ovarian Suite," which merges a song and a skit about men's obsession for "ladies' parts" into a brilliant bit of theater, led by Taj Ruler's in-your-face singing. Each piece dates back at least a few years, but they fit as perfect commentaries of the retrograde politics played out in places like Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Then there is the Act One closer, "A Brief History of Terror." Using elements from numerous past shows, the sketch weaves together millennia of jokes about the things that scare the bejeezus out of people, from the threat of nuclear war in the 1960s to the election of various presidents in the last 40-some years.

Like the chestnuts on Abba's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (frighteningly enough, the first album I ever bought), the moments here are battle-tested and designed to please. The laughs come fast and furious, and the talented company — which mixes in longstanding performers with relative newcomers — is ready for anything thrown at them.

Efforts are made to showcase the differences between now and "then" in the very first bit, which is a rather gentle sketch about a couple falling in love. The cast interrupts it midway through, wondering about the antiquated landline the pair are using and the old-fashioned way they've been courting.

The old and new are also showcased on stage. Lauren Anderson has been with the ensemble for ages. Ruler and Andy Hilbrands have been mainstays for several seasons, and Matt Erkel returns after a few seasons away to provide some renewed energy. The revelation here is Tom Reed, who joins the company after working as an understudy. Reed is no stranger to local stages, having done excellent work at the likes of Mixed Blood (in Avenue Q), and with a string of hit Minnesota Fringe Festival one-man musicals behind him.

Reed's energy fuels the sense of madness that permeates much of the proceedings. After all, this is a show where a Christian rock band (singing the subtle ditty "Don't Have Sex") has to deal with a satanically possessed drummer, and where a pair of yoga pants and a pair of sweatpants ruminate about their respective positions in modern fashion.

It's a fun ride from beginning to end and, unlike with music, it's not like you can just pop in your copy of Waterloo or The Long Run and listen to it in the original form. Thanks to the Brave New Workshop for bringing these ephemeral moments back for another go-around.

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